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Published: Monday, 3/3/2014 - Updated: 5 months ago

Jeep’s 4-wheel-drive models help Feb. auto sales rebound

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

The continuing cold and snow across much of the United States put U.S. auto sales in a deep freeze for a second straight month.

Total sales for February came in at just under 1.2 million — up from a disappointing January but down slightly from last year.

Most major automakers reported single-digit decreases for the month.

Trucks and sport utility vehicles, especially compact crossovers, generally performed better than cars. And February wasn’t a bad month for everyone.

Led by Jeep and Ram, Chrysler’s sales were up 11 percent for the month, giving the company its best February in seven years. Subaru, which makes nothing but all-wheel-drive vehicles, also enjoyed a strong February. The Japanese automaker was tops among companies, with a 24 percent increase last month.

“It might be coincidental, but it’s quite a coincidence we’ve had two months of very, very bad weather in terms of temperatures and snow, and the two brands that really offer a high mix of all-wheel-drive vehicles are doing well,” said Tom Libby, an auto analyst with IHS Automotive.

With sales of 424,683 vehicles last year, Subaru is a sliver of the total U.S. market, but it has been making strong gains. Last year was Subaru’s fifth straight year of record sales.

Jeep, meanwhile, is marching toward a goal of selling 1 million vehicles worldwide. Key to that is the new Toledo-built Cherokee. Sales of the vehicle were strong for the month at 11,795.

Mr. Libby said Cherokee has proved a strong competitor in the growing compact SUV segment.

“It’s the third-biggest in the industry, and they dropped right in that segment a very competitive, high-tech vehicle, and they’re benefiting from it,” he said of the Cherokee.

Three other Jeep models, including the Toledo-built Wrangler, set February sales records.

Nissan was the only other automaker to report a year-over-year sales gain. The company said it sold 105,631 vehicles in February, a 17 percent increase.

Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer said one reason Nissan may have done so well was that it relies less on the hard-hit Midwest.

“They're more southern,” he said. “They have plants in the south, and they have a big presence on the West Coast.”

General Motors Co. said sales were down 1 percent. Toyota was down 4 percent. Ford Motor Co. dropped 6 percent, while Honda fell 7 percent.

Analysts expect a bounce-back for the industry whenever the weather finally improves, saying the factors that fueled last year’s growth — available credit, low interest rates, and an improving economy — remain in place.

“We have to wait another month,” Mr. Libby said. “I know people said that at the end of January, but the weather really continued into February, and in Michigan it’s continuing right now.”

As the weather moderates, analysts and auto company executives are optimistic that many of the lost sales will be recovered.

“Despite a slower start to 2014 than most people expected, we look forward to a very successful year, backed by plenty of new products and what should be the strongest GDP growth since the end of the recession,” said Kurt McNeil, GM’s U.S. vice president of sales operations.

And even with the cold and snow, one local dealer said February was a great month.

“I don’t know if it was a combination of a little better weather and pent-up demand, but we had our best retail month ever in our company’s history,” said Doug Kearns, general manager of Yark Automotive Group. “If that’s any indication of what is coming when we do get some good weather, it should really be a great year.”

U.S. auto sales were up about 8 percent last year over 2012. Going into this year, analysts anticipated gains of 2.5 percent to 3 percent in 2014.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134 or on Twitter @BladeAutoWriter.



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