Auto Sales Rise in August, but Buyers Still Cautious with Wires

Major automakers posted double-digit U.S. sales gains for August from year-earlier levels, a steady result for a month that began with a plunge on Wall Street and ended with a hurricane shutting down the East Coast.

Jim R. Bounds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

General Motors says its U.S. sales for the month of August were up 18.2 percent from the same time last year. However, that figure is slightly below estimates of 19.9 percent, showing that car buyers remain cautious.

GM sold 218,479 vehicles, including nearly 22,000 Chevrolet Cruze compact cars. The Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain small crossovers also were strong sellers. Sales of the Terrain jumped 88 percent while the Equinox rose 54 percent.

Sales of GM's full-size pickup—the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado—rose 10 percent in August. Those sales, which are crucial for GM's profits, have been slow much of the year. The August sales helped GM reduce its stockpile of pickups.

At the current rate of sales, it would take 107 days for GM to sell out of pickups, down from 115 days in July.

And Ford says its U.S. sales were up 11.3 percent in August of 2011 compared to the same time in 2010. However, that was below expectations of 14.1 percent.

Meanwhile, Chrysler reported a sales increase of 30.6 percent for August, which beat expectations of 21.2 percent. Chrysler sold 130,119 units vs. 99,611 units during the same time last year.

However, Toyota reported a larger than expected decrease in U.S. sales of 12.7 percent in August. Analysts had predicted a decline of 11 percent. The troubled Japanese car maker sold 129,483 units this year vs. 148,388 units during August of 2010. This was the third time in four months that Chrysler outsold Toyota in the U.S.

But Nissan said U.S. sales rose 19 percent in August over the same time last year, as people snapped up subcompact and midsize cars such as the new four-door Versa and Altima sedan.

And German car maker Volkswagen also reported an increase in sales for August of 10.4 percent from the same time in 2010.

Car sales were expected to slow in August because of fewer discounts, worries about the economy andHurricane Irene, which shut East Coast dealerships during the final weekend of the month.

Irene closed out a disappointing summer for automakers. The storm followed bad economic news that discouraged some buying and shortages of cars caused by Japan's earthquake.

Before the storm, J.D. Power was forecasting total sales of 1.07 million for the month. While that's 4 percent higher than August last year, it's still at a much slower pace than at the start of 2011.

The hurricane shut down dealers and damaged stores and inventory up and down the East Coast. Auto information site estimated that at least 10,000 sales were lost because of the storm.

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Paul Larson, the owner of Larson Ford Suzuki in Lakewood, N.J., sold just one car last Saturday, a day he might normally sell ten or more.

Judy Schumacher Tilton, the owner of Gearhart Chevrolet in Denville, N.J., moved 350 cars to higher ground before the storm hit, so she lost no inventory. Tilton hopes to reopen Friday and make up the lost sales as hurricane victims replace cars damaged in the storm.

"I can't even imagine the number of cars that have been lost here," she said. "Everyone's going to need an automobile."

That could spark auto sales this fall. Another factor is deals. Cash-back offers, low-interest loans and other deals have been scarce this summer because of car shortages. But they're expected to return as Japanese carmakers replenish their supplies in September and October.

Buyers will welcome those discounts. Total incentive spending per vehicle in August was down 4 percent to an estimated $2,663 per vehicle, according to car pricing site

But Toyota was more aggressive with its spending, indicating that the company plans to win back share it lost because of the earthquake. The new Toyota Camry sedan coming to dealerships in October could also lift sales.

For now, the industry hopes that a return to more normal markets this fall will mean more buyers.

"September will be the acid test of underlying demand for the rest of the year," Jeffries auto analyst Peter Nesvold said Tuesday in a note to investors.

But the industry remains cautious. The unemployment rate is stuck at 9 percent, food and clothing costs are going up and consumer confidence dropped to its lowest level in more than two years in August.

"If there's one thing you need confidence to buy, it's a car," said Efraim Levy, an equity analyst with Standard and Poor's. Levy recently dropped his full-year U.S. sales forecast from 13 million cars and trucks to 12.9 million, citing low confidence and the fluctuations in the stock market.

Many dealers are uncertain, too. Brattleboro Subaru in Vermont was undamaged by the storm and open for business this week. But sales manager Luke Higley expects sales will be slow for a while because of severe flooding.

"We're going to have to wait and see," he said.