Autos

US auto sales fall in 2019 but still top 17 million for fifth consecutive year

Key Points
  • Automakers sold more than 17 million vehicles in the U.S. for a fifth consecutive year in 2019.
  • Available credit, low unemployment rates and healthy consumer sentiment all contributed to a robust market for U.S. auto sales in 2019.
  • For 2020, analysts expect U.S. sales of roughly 16.7 million to 17.1 million vehicles.
A row of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) 2017 Crysler Pacifica minivan vehicles are displayed for sale at a car dealership in Moline, Illinois, U.S., on July 1, 2017.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

DETROIT — Automakers sold more than 17 million vehicles in the U.S. for a fifth consecutive year in 2019, an unprecedented feat that many presumed was unsustainable when the streak began.

Domestic light-duty vehicle sales totaled almost 17.1 million vehicles last year, a 1.6% decline compared with 2018, according to automotive research and forecast firm Edmunds. The Detroit Big 3 automakers as well as many large foreign competitors such as Toyota Motor reported slight declines in sales of 3% or less in 2019.

New vehicle sales for 2019 were originally forecast to fall to between 16.7 million to 16.9 million, but they are in line with revised estimates after sales proved to be stronger than anticipated last year. For 2020, auto analysts see U.S. sales of roughly 16.7 million to 17.1 million vehicles.

"We're seeing less headwinds and more tailwinds than in the past," said Jeremy Acevedo, senior manager of industry insights at Edmunds. "2019 showed a bit of resilience and shows that there's a bit more left in the tank."

Cheap and available credit, low unemployment rates and healthy consumer sentiment all contributed to a robust market for U.S. auto sales in 2019. Acevedo and others expect those trends to continue for 2020.

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"The foundation is an incredibly healthy economy," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive. "I don't see any of the major influential forces on new car sales drastically changing in 2020."

Analysts also expect sales of crossovers and utility vehicles to continue to dominate those of passenger cars, which have experienced significant declines in recent years.

2020 headwinds

Cox Automotive and J.D. Power/LMC Automotive are both predicting U.S. auto sales of 16.7 million in 2020, while Edmunds expects 17.1 million for this year.

Changes in the economy or consumer sentiment, a spike in gas prices and rising vehicle prices could derail those projections.

Jonathan Smoke, chief economist of Cox Automotive, cited a record amount of non-housing debt, slowing retail spending, worsening consumer credit and rising defaults as potential concerns for the auto industry.

"Retail spending growth began to slow as we entered the fourth quarter," he said in a release. "Collectively these trends suggest that the consumer may not be capable of single-handedly carrying the economy in 2020, which is why we are expecting another decline in new-vehicle sales."

J.D. Power estimates consumers spent a record $462 billion on new vehicles in 2019. That's up $8.4 billion from 2018 and marks the first time consumers spent more than $460 billion on new cars, according to the firm. While automakers are selling fewer cars, the prices on new vehicles keeps getting more expensive.

Ford Motor CEO Jim Hackett recently said the automaker is analyzing ways to potentially reduce the costs of vehicles through "reductive design," or including fewer features to keep prices low.

"I'm really optimistic that the paradigm of everything just getting more expensive is actually going to get disrupted — fairly soon, actually," he told Automotive News for a Dec. 2 article.

Ford CEO James Hackett reveals the company's first mass-market electric car the Mustang Mach-E, which is an all-electric vehicle that bears the name of the companys iconic muscle car at a ceremony in Hawthorne, California on November 17, 2019.
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

Detroit automakers

The Detroit automakers last year represented about 44%, or 7.5 million vehicles, of the U.S. auto industry in 2019 — in line with the previous year.

Ford, the final automaker to report its 2019 sales, said Monday it sold 2.4 million vehicles last year, a 3% decline from 2018. That compares with a 2.3% decline last year for General Motors, which said Friday it sold 2.9 million vehicles in 2019. Fiat Chrysler on Friday said it sold more than 2.2 million vehicles, a 1.4% decline.

The Ford F-Series pickup retained its title of best-selling truck in the U.S. for the 43rd consecutive year and the top-selling vehicle for the 38th year. Last year marked F-Series' best sales for Ford since 2005, with a total of 986,097 pickups sold.

Toyota, the third-largest automaker by volume in the U.S., reported a 1.8% decline in sales to nearly 2.4 million vehicles in 2019. Nissan Motors' 9.9% sales decline was the largest drop last year, while Volvo's sales experienced the highest increase at 10.1%, according to Edmunds.

Globally, vehicle sales are estimated to have fallen by about 3.1 million in 2019 — the steepest year-over-year decline since the financial crisis a decade ago.