U.S. May auto sales down 6 percent; sedan sales weak

DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. auto industry sales fell 6 percent in May, with General Motors Co GM.N, Ford Motor Co F.N and other manufacturers reporting lower U.S. vehicle sales for the month due to sluggish demand for sedans and two fewer selling days.

Automobiles are shown for sale at a car dealership in Carlsbad, California, U.S. on May 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Major automakers reporting May sales on Wednesday sold new vehicles at an annualized rate of 17.45 million vehicles, Autodata Corp said, up from 17.42 million vehicles in April. The May annualized rate was generally in line with analysts’ expectations.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker, said its sales fell 18 percent to 240,450 vehicles, a steeper decline than analysts expected.

Ford reported a 6 percent drop to 235,997 vehicles from a year earlier, but said its F-Series pickup truck sales rose 9 percent.

In the morning, sales reports, particularly GM’s, spooked investors on the lookout for weakness in the cyclical auto industry, which has been on an upswing since the Great Recession.

GM shares ended down 3.4 percent at $30.20 and Ford down 2.8 percent at $13.11, both higher than lows hit in the morning. The broader S&P 500 .SPX and Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI were up less than 0.1 percent.

Analysts generally did not view the sales decline as the start of the anticipated weakness in auto sales, an early snapshot of consumer spending each month. Most analysts had expected a drop, in large part because of two fewer selling days and one less weekend in May.

“The outlook ... remains for another record year, and nothing in May’s results suggests otherwise,” said IHS Automotive analyst Stephanie Brinley.

Economic fundamentals remain strong and interest rates low, Brinley said.

GM was still bullish on U.S. auto sales.

“We feel pretty good about the U.S. economy and the U.S. consumer,” said Dan Ammann, GM president, at a business conference in northern Michigan.

Trucks and SUVs, which generally offer higher profit margins, remained the U.S. industry’s most popular vehicles, to the detriment of traditional sedans.

Ford U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve said the skew toward the larger vehicles “really plays into Ford’s wheelhouse.”

The same can be said for the two other major U.S. automakers, GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles FCAU.NFCHA.MI, which also have strong lineups and sales of SUVs and pickup trucks.

Still, LMC Automotive analyst Jeff Schuster said that while midsize sedans made up a smaller share of the overall market, it was still sizeable.

GM had slowed production at three plants that make sedans, which hurt May sales, the company said.

A year ago, the Cruze compact sedan was GM’s top-selling car, but its sales fell 30 percent in May. The Malibu midsize sedan, which gained 13 percent, replaced it as the company’s best seller in that category.

Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T, No. 3 in the U.S. market behind GM and Ford, said its May sales dropped 9.6 percent to 219,339 vehicles.

Cars’ share of Toyota’s sales fell to 49 percent from 53 percent in May 2015.

Honda Motor Co's 7267.T sales fell 4.8 percent, but unlike most automakers, the decline was steeper for its trucks and SUVs than for cars.

Hyundai Motor Co 005380.KS showed an increase of nearly 12 percent for May on the strength of SUV sales. Its corporate sibling Kia Motors Co 000270.KS increased sales nearly 1 percent.

Ford’s car sales fell 25 percent. Sales were essentially flat for its SUVs and up 9 percent for trucks.

Among Ford sedan sales, the Fusion fell 21.5 percent, and the Focus dropped 27 percent. Sales rose 5.5 percent for the company’s top-selling SUV, the Escape.

FCA said its sales rose 1 percent to 204,452 vehicles on a 14 percent gain for its Jeep SUV brand. The company was the only major automaker in the U.S. market for which analysts had not expected a decline.

FCA’s Ram pickup truck sales fell 3 percent in May but were still up 8 percent for this year.

Nissan Motor Co 7201.T said its sales fell 1 percent, as its car sales fell 6 percent but its truck and SUV sales rose 6 percent.

In 2015, vehicle sales were a record 17.47 million vehicles, according to Autodata Corp.

Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Meredith Mazzilli