Increased demand from rental car companies, strong truck and SUV sales, and recovery from hurricanes in Florida and Texas weren't enough to push U.S. auto sales into positive territory for October.
Sales for the month fell 1.3 percent compared with a year ago as slowing demand made it almost certain that 2017 will be the first year with declining sales in seven years. Full-year sales almost certainly will fall below last year's record of more than 17.5 million, although most analysts say demand is still healthy. Automakers reported selling 1.35 million vehicles for the month, according to Autodata Corp.
Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen all reported gains for October on Wednesday, but Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Hyundai and others posted declines.
At Ford, sales rose 6 percent due to a big gain in F-Series pickup demand and an increase in sales to fleet buyers such as governments and rental car companies. Nissan sales were up 8 percent on record sales of the Rogue small SUV, which rose 43 percent. Analysts said Nissan also had a big increase in fleet sales, although the company said sales to individual buyers increased as well. Toyota and Honda each reported gains of about 1 percent, while VW brand sales were up nearly 12 percent.
But Fiat Chrysler sales dropped 13 percent as a 43 percent cut in fleet sales offset an October record for Ram pickup sales. GM sales fell 2 percent as all four of its brands posted declines. At Hyundai, sales fell more than 15 percent with car sales suffering as buyers continued the shift toward trucks and SUVs.
September is the only month this year with positive sales numbers. And if history is any indication, November and December will be good months to buy vehicles because companies are likely to raise already high discounts, said Akshay Anand, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "I do think that consumer interest is still strong regardless," he said.
The October drop came despite big numbers for pickup trucks and SUVs, higher incentives such as cash rebates, and higher sales to fleet buyers. Trucks and SUVs accounted for about 65 percent of new vehicle sales in October, with cars in the 35 percent range, which has been typical for much of the year, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for the LMC Automotive consulting firm.
With millions of late-model cars coming off leases into the used-car market and automakers still trying to clear dealer lots of slow-selling cars, it's a great time to get a deal on a less-popular sedan, Anand said.
New vehicle sales also got a bump from replacement of hurricane-damaged vehicles, although Schuster said it wasn't as large as expected because many people bought used vehicles. Based on data for the first three weeks of October, sales in Florida rose 5 percent as shoppers finished purchases delayed by Hurricane Irma. In Houston, they rose only 3 percent as the recovery from Hurricane Harvey wound down.
Automakers raised discounts on vehicles to an average of $3,901, beating the previous record for October of $3,835 set last year, according to J.D. Power. But the average sale price, including incentives, rose to an October record of $32,185, as consumers bought more expensive trucks and SUVs and loaded them with options.
Analysts say incentives could go higher toward the end of the year with big marketing pushes to meet year-end sales numbers.