September U.S. auto sales: Mixed results

It doesn’t take advanced knowledge of Newtonian physics to understand the forces at play right now in the U.S. auto market.

But it helps.

Consider Newton’s Third Law of Motion. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

That played out in September — and indeed throughout the third quarter — across the U.S. auto industry as automakers and dealers struggled to find a balance between opposing forces. Continuing production and logistical bottlenecks at some automakers kept inventory from recovering more quickly; rapidly rising interest rates and prices squared off against consumers’ concerns about their ability to pay.

The result: The seasonally adjusted, annualized rate came in at 13.67 million last month, Motor Intelligence said, above analysts’ projections and much improved from the 12.38 million in September 2021, the lowest pace of sales since the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. September 2021 was the worst post-lockdown month of 2021, LMC Automotive said.

Automakers posted a mishmash of results for the month and the quarter, many keyed most simply on whether dealers had inventory available to sell.

For the third quarter, a handful of major automakers posted gains, including General Motors’ 25 percent jump and Ford Motor Co.’s 16 percent rise, both driven largely by improved inventory conditions compared with a year earlier. On the other side of the ledger, American Honda saw its sales shrink by 36 percent and Toyota Motor North America suffered a 7.1 percent decline during the three-month period, largely attributable to supply constraints.

“Supply is still wagging the dog here,” said Jeff Schuster, president, Americas operation and global vehicle forecasting at LMC Automotive, “but I think we’re starting to see that turn as well.” September was “full of noise” across automakers depending on the success they had getting vehicles from the factory to dealership lots, the longtime industry analyst said.

“On an industry level, you are seeing an improvement in inventory, but it’s not across all brands, and at the same time, there is a pullback starting on the demand side. Rising interest rates have pushed a lot of consumers right out of the new-car market, so you have these competing issues on the supply and demand side that are altering the outlook going into next year,” Schuster said.

LMC this week trimmed its 2022 sales outlook by 75,000 units to 13.7 million light vehicles, which would be a decline of 9 percent from 2021, and cut its 2023 forecast by 100,000 units to 15.3 million.

There are some signs of hope on the production side. North American vehicle production jumped 23 percent in August to 1.39 million, according to the Automotive News Research & Data Center. Through eight months of 2022, assembly plant output is up 10 percent to 9.76 million.

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