September 2008 US Auto Sales Fall Off a Cliff

By Chris Haak


All of the major automakers in the US announced their sales figures yesterday; amid a slowing economy, high fuel prices, and expensive/unavailable credit, the overall market declined more than 25 percent.  Not a single manufacturer saw sales increase; every manufacturer except for Daimler AG and Volkswagen saw double-digit declines (Daimler was down 8.4% and VW was down 9.4%).  Even Toyota, which until this past year was running up a string of consecutive months with double-digit gains compared to the same period a year earlier, was down big – in fact, Toyota was down 32%.

Aside from Isuzu – which is withdrawing from the US light-vehicle market in early 2009, so saw a 54.3% decline to a measly 258 vehicles in September, Suzuki was the largest loser in September.  Suzuki sales were down a staggering 46.6%, in spite of the company offering several small, fuel efficient vehicles.  (The company does not yet have a sales breakdown on their media website, so it’s impossible to tell at this point whether Suzuki’s problem stems from the XL7 and Grand Vitara, or its small cars such as the SX4).

Porsche also took it on the chin, with sales falling 44.8% from 2,641 to 1,458 units.  Honda, which had dominated the sales race during most of 2008 in terms of percentage increases, was stopped cold in its tracks with a 24.0% decline.  Other big slides included Mitsubishi (-39.0%) and Mazda (-35.6%).

Among the Detroit-based brands, Ford sales were hit the hardest, falling by 36.3%.  The worst-performing models were the Mustang (-52.2%), Edge (-43.0%), F-Series (-41.6%), Taurus X (-63.9%), Explorer (-67.3%, and now selling at an annualized rate of 41,976, or about 10% of its onetime 400,000 units per year peak), MKX (-53.9%), Navigator (-48.5%), Sable (-57.7%), Milan (-35.2%), and Mountaineer (-70.0%).  The only Ford models that saw gains were the Focus (+4.7%), Crown Victoria (+2.9%), and Town Car (+68.7%), though the latter two vehicles weren’t produced for several months last year as Town Car production moved to the Crown Victoria’s factory.

Across town at Chrysler LLC, the story was very much the same, with overall sales falling 32.8%.  Nearly all models saw steep declines, but some of the worst were the Chrysler 300 (-54%), PT Cruiser (-61%), Compass (-65%), Grand Cherokee (-56%), Commander (-65%), Avenger (-46%), Dakota (-85%, and yes, they still do make it), Ram (-31%), Durango (-78%, in spite of the Hybrid’s launch, and again, yes, they still make it!), Nitro (-64%), and Sprinter (-44%).  The only models that saw positives were the Grand Caravan/Town & Country (both up a surprising 6%), and the extremely low-volume Viper (up 258% from 24 units to 86 units).

GM had the least-ugly September, thanks in no small part to its employee pricing for everyone promotion (which ended September 30, and was replaced yesterday by 0% financing on 2008 models).  GM’s overall sales were down 15.6%, tops among the Japanese and Detroit Big Three.  GM’s biggest decliners were the LaCrosse (-41.4%), CTS (-32.0%), STS (-46.9%), Aveo (-30.2%; perhaps having a small car isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if the small car isn’t a very good one), Solstice (-46.1%), 9-3 (-28.9%), 9-5 (-36.2%), Escalade (-50.1%), Suburban (-42.5%), Colorado (-40.0%), Equinox (-57.1%), Tahoe (-52.2%), Trailblazer (-30.8%, and doubling the Explorer’s sales), Uplander (-84.3%), Canyon (-35.9%), Yukon (-49.3%), and Yukon XL (-54.4%).  The difference between GM and Ford/Chrysler, however, was that GM had several models that actually saw sales increases, including the Impala (+17.1%), Malibu (+68.2%, and demonstrating what GM might be able to do if it had all outstanding products and marketing budgets adequate to support their launches), G5 (+22.7%), Vibe (+91.1%), Enclave (+26.7%), HHR (+14.3%), Sierra (+1.6%, and quite a surprise, I might add).  The Malibu’s performance is particularly impressive, as the Camry, Accord, and Fusion all dropped by a minimum of 16.9% (Fusion).  In spite of a less-dreadful September than many had, GM is also likely to see a somewhat substantial hangover in the latter part of 2008 due to sales that were pulled ahead as a result of the employee pricing sale.

Digging a little deeper into Toyota’s number, and there are few surprises.  The Tundra was down 60.7%, Tacoma was down 34.4%, FJ Cruiser down 65.4%, 4Runner down 62.0%, Highlander down 29.9%, and RAV4 down 28.5%.  The news was only slightly less bad on the car side, with the Camry (-27.1%), Avalon (-43.9%), Corolla (-27.9%), xB (-37.3%), tC (-53.0%), ES (-37.7%), LS (-57.6%), GS (-41.4%), all seeing substantial declines.  The good news at Toyota was that their newer trucks – the Sequoia (+22.3%), LX570 (+265.5%), and Land Cruiser (+14.1%) – all saw nice sales increases, which is ironic since all three are powered by thirsty 5.7 liter V8s, while the relatively efficient Corolla, also an all-new car for 2009, saw double-digit declines.  September 2008 was Toyota’s worst month since June 1987 in terms of sales declines.

Other manufacturers of note include Hyundai (down 26.4%, and it would be worse had the 2009 Sonata not enjoyed a great month (up 31.7%), at the expense of the Accent and Elantra), BMW (down 25.7%), Nissan (down 36.8%), and Subaru (down “just” 11.9%).  The industry had better hope that Congress approves the pending financial industry bailout bill, and that the bill meets its objective of freeing up credit markets, because the perfect storm served to create the lowest new vehicle sales number in the US in more than 15 years.  September was also the first time that new vehicle sales fell below 1 million units in a month since January 1993.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Just outta curiosity, how did the Yaris do? Also, how about Honda’s sales by breakdown as well?

  2. Yaris sales were even vs. last September, actually an increase of 0.1% vs last year ( 5,721 vs 5,956).

  3. According to Morningstar, 53% of those Malibu sales were to fleets. GM’s overall fleet sales were up 17% from last September, while retail sales dropped 26%.

  4. Speaking of fleets, I begin to see more Corollas and Camrys at rental fleets. We knew then Honda don’t want to send more cars to the fleet market but if the economic situation goes worse, how long Honda will resist to the temptation of the fleet market calling?

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