Major automakers announced their end-of-year US sales totals, showing a slowing market even as Americans' demand for more expensive SUVs and trucks drove up prices. US consumers continued the trend away from small cars and sedans but appeared increasingly squeezed by higher interest rates and prices. With low unemployment levels and a strong economy, America's big three automakers reported a mixed picture.
GM and Ford notched declines. Fiat Chrysler's US subsidiary soared. GM, the biggest of the US automakers, reported a 2.7 per cent sales dip in the fourth quarter and a 1.6 per cent decline for 2018 -- despite selling more crossover SUVs than in 2017. Ford also struggled. Sales were down 8.8 per cent in December to end the year 3.5 per cent lower than in 2017. It, too, sold more of its larger vehicles, including F-Series pickups and SUVs.
FCA US, Fiat Chrysler's US subsidiary, improved its annual total by nine per cent – fruits of its new focus on larger vehicles. The company's sales rose 14 per cent in the final month of the year. "This year's performance underscores the efforts we undertook to realign our production to give US consumers more Jeep vehicles and Ram pickup trucks," FCA US's sales chief Reid Bigland said in a statement.
Another industry giant, Toyota, also recorded US sales slumps in December and the year -- 0.9 per cent and 0.3 per cent, respectively. The declines coincided with increased prices for automobiles. Kelley Blue Book predicted the average new-car price was up about three per cent in 2018 to an average of more than USD 36,000.
"Despite retail sales falling for the sixth consecutive month, the continued growth in transaction prices is allowing manufacturers to offset lower sales with higher revenue," JD Power analyst Thomas King said in a statement. That combination led GM to announce it would double down on large vehicles with higher price tags in 2019. "We feel confident heading into 2019 because we have truck and crossover launches coming during the year and the US economy is strong," GM sales chief Kurt McNeil said in a statement.
But Edmunds predicted consumers will feel more squeezed in 2019 as auto prices rise and interest rates are set to climb further. The analytics firm said the industry would sell fewer cars -- down from a forecast 17.2 million in 2018 to 16.9 million in 2019.