Auto Sales Subdued by Sandy


At first glance, October was a rough month for auto sales in the U.S. Despite a good sales pace for much of the month, many of the automakers missed analysts' estimates due to lost sales in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Ford (NYS: F) sales analyst Erich Merkle estimates that Hurricane Sandy accounted for about 300,000 lost sales for the industry in October. Certainly nearly all of the automakers were affected, as General Motors (NYS: GM) , Toyota (NYS: TM) , and others joined Ford in releasing results that were more subdued than expected.

History suggests that most of those lost sales will be made up over the next couple of months, but how were the automakers doing before Sandy hit the East Coast?

Small cars and big trucks power Ford and GM
Ford's results actually weren't bad, all things considered. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Merkle noted that small-car sales were "unseasonably strong" across the industry. They were certainly a source of strength for Ford, which reported a 54% year-over-year increase in small-car sales, Ford's best October for small cars in 11 years.

Ford's Focus accounted for much of that, but also making a showing was the company's new C-MAX Hybrid, a challenger to Toyota's Prius. While the C-MAX's sales aren't (yet) anywhere near the Prius' consistently strong monthly totals, the new model has exceeded Ford's early expectations. Ford Vice President Ken Czubay said on Thursday that 63% of the C-MAX's sales in October were "conquest" sales, people coming to Ford from other brands. Many of those were former Prius owners, he said.

Pickups were also strong sellers in October, a category led by Ford's F-Series, which was up 8% over strong year-ago totals. That bodes well for Ford's bottom line, as the F-Series is a key driver of Ford's profits.

Similar trends were evident at GM, which saw sales of its compact Chevy Cruze rise almost 34% over last October's results. GM said its combined sales of "mini, small, and compact cars" were up 72% over year-ago totals. Meanwhile, like Ford, GM posted an 8% gain in pickup sales.

A mixed bag for the big import brands
Toyota's sales were up 15.8%, the company said in a preliminary release, well behind the average estimate of 26% reported by Bloomberg. Volkswagen (NASDAQOTH: VLKAY) came somewhat closer to estimates, reporting a 22% increase versus consensus estimates of about 26% -- its best year-to-date period since the Beetle-happy days of 1973.

Sales at Honda (NYS: HMC) were even more subdued, up 8% versus consensus estimates of a roughly 16% gain.

Honda did have some bright spots to report. Following the small-car trend, sales of the Civic compact were up 27%, and the company's all-new Accord sedan is having a strong debut with a 25% year-over year gain.

The upshot: Auto sales continue to be fairly strong
Despite the disruption caused by the hurricane, most of the automakers see a fairly strong sales pace continuing. Estimates of the annualized pace varied, but most were around 14.5 million, a big step up from last year at this time.

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