Automakers post disappointing U.S. sales, still see strong 2016

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co GM.N, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles FCAU.NFCHA.MI and other major automakers reported weaker-than-expected U.S. sales for March, hurt by declining demand for sedans and light dealer traffic during the Easter weekend.

A logo of Ford is pictured on a car at the 86th International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland, March 1, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Sales for the month rose 3 percent to nearly 1.6 million vehicles, or 16.57 million vehicles on an annualized basis, according to industry analyst Autodata Corp. That was well below expectations of a rise of about 7 percent and annualized estimates that ranged from 17 million to 17.5 million by analysts and economists polled by Thomson Reuters.

WardsAuto, which issues data used in U.S. government figures, showed an annualized rate of 16.46 million vehicles.

Shares of several automakers fell.

Mark Wakefield, head of AlixPartners’ automotive practice, said light dealer traffic over the Easter weekend, which usually comes in April, hampered sales. But he said that 2016 sales would exceed the 2015 record of 17.4 million vehicles as relatively low interest rates, strong employment and low gasoline prices support demand for new vehicles, particularly SUVs and pickup trucks.

The shift away from sedans and toward SUVs and trucks is becoming more pronounced. Autodata showed that 56.9 percent of March sales were SUVs and trucks versus 52.7 percent a year ago. In March, car sales fell 6 percent while SUV and truck sales rose 11.4 percent.

IHS Automotive analyst Christopher Hopson said, “With ample incentives and inventory levels, the sales pace should quicken in the second quarter.”

While Ford Motor Co's F.N and Nissan Motor Co's 7201.T results topped estimates, those of the remaining top automakers in the U.S. market fell short of expectations.

Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T said its sales fell 2.7 percent to 219,842 vehicles. Analysts on average had expected about 239,000, or a rise of about 6 percent, according to a Reuters poll.

Honda Motor Co's 7267.T sales were up 9.4 percent, against analysts' expectations of a 17 percent rise.

Fiat Chrysler’s sales rose 8 percent to 213,187 vehicles, well below analysts’ estimates of 220,000 to 229,700.

GM said its sales rose 0.9 percent to 252,128 vehicles, about 2,600 fewer than cross-town rival Ford’s and below the 3 percent increase analysts expected.

Sales to consumers rose 6 percent, GM said, as it pulled back on sales to rental agencies, which are not as lucrative. The company plans to cut sales for U.S. rental car fleets by 80,000 to 90,000 vehicles this year.

Honda said its U.S. sales rose 9.4 percent, but analysts had expected a 17 percent increase.

Ford said its March sales rose 8 percent, narrowly topping analyst expectations. The average selling price of its vehicles increased by $1,600, said U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve.

Ford shares, nonetheless, along with GM's, were down about 3 percent, and Fiat Chrysler was off 4 percent. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index .SPX was up 0.6 percent.

Nissan reported a 13 percent gain on the strength of its mainstay sedans, topping expectations of an 11 percent rise.

In Canada, GM and Ford reported double-digit sales increases for March and the first three months of 2016.

Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Dan Grebler