Growth in U.S. Auto Sales Hits the Slow Lane in July

Auto Sales
Steven Senne/AP

By Bernie Woodall, Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert

DETROIT -- U.S. auto sales growth slowed slightly in July despite hefty discounts, with most manufacturers Friday reporting gains below expectations.

Among the major automakers, only Ford Motor (F) and Toyota Motor (TM) beat analyst estimates. Ford's sales were up 10 percent at 212,236, with Toyota's up 12 percent at 215,802.

Toyota was the No. 2 seller in July, edging past Ford, which had held that spot for the first half of this year and for 2013 overall. General Motors (GM) remained in top place.

With all of the major carmakers reporting by midday, industry sales were up 9 percent from the previous July, to 1,433,016. Analysts surveyed by Reuters had expected an 11 percent increase.

Results were mixed. Honda Motor (HMC) said July sales tumbled 8 percent to 135,908. It was the only one of the top car companies to cut incentives from June to July, with per-vehicle discounts averaging $1,754, according to research firm J.D. Power.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-947%Average industry discounts last month rose slightly to just over $3,000 per vehicle, with Ford incentives averaging close to $3,919. Industry incentives were the highest since 2010, said Larry Dominique, president of research firm ALG.

GM, Nissan Motor, Chrysler Group and the Hyundai-Kia Group all reported higher July sales that nonetheless failed to meet analyst expectations.

GM said July sales were up 9 percent at 256,160. Also reporting increases were Chrysler, up 20 percent at 167,667; Nissan, up 11 percent at 121,452; and Hyundai-Kia, up 4 percent at 119,320.

The Volkswagen Group, which includes Audi and Porsche, said sales fell 6 percent to 49,469.

Morgan Stanley (MS) analyst Adam Jonas said growth in July slowed even further than expected, with the annualized sales rate running at 16.4 million, down from 17 million in June. Economists polled by Thomson Reuters had expected the annualized rate in July to ease slightly to 16.7 million.

With generous credit terms drawing buyers to more expensive vehicles, transaction prices in July remained firm, averaging $32,556 per vehicle, according to research firm Kelley Blue Book.

Ford said average prices on its full-size F-Series pickups topped $40,000, while GM's Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra's average prices were close to $39,000.

Sales growth of full-size pickup trucks, a bellwether for the U.S. economy, slowed in July.

Sales of Ford's best-selling F-Series rose 5 percent to 63,240 vehicles. GM's full-size Silverado had flat sales at 42,097, while the Sierra was up 5 percent to 17,488. Chrysler's Ram pickup climbed 14 percent to 35,621.

Gains in U.S. auto sales have been stronger than the overall economy since the recession. Still, the monthly figures provide an early glimpse into consumer spending.

Auto sales dropped to a low of 10.4 million vehicles in 2009 and have risen steadily since, in part because of easier credit and loans of up to 84 months. They reached 15.6 million last year.