Autos

U.S. auto sales rebound somewhat from dismal April as states lift coronavirus restrictions

Key Points
  • Toyota, Honda and Hyundai were among the automakers Tuesday to report double-digit sales losses for last month compared to a year earlier.
  • The pace of sales picked up in May, averaging 12.17 million vehicles on an annualized basis, according to Autodata.
  • Auto research firms expected new vehicle sales to be slightly less than 1.1 million vehicles in May, down about 32% to 33% compared with May 2019.
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Toyota North America's VP of sales on how long the industry could take to recover

U.S. auto sales plummeted in May from the year before, but showed signs of recovering from their massive collapse in April as states loosened restrictions that shuttered many dealerships and kept consumers at home, according to early sales data from a majority of the automakers and industry analysts.

Toyota Motor, Honda Motor and Hyundai Motor were among the automakers to report double-digit sales declines last month compared to May 2019. Smaller automakers such as Mazda and Volvo reported slight declines.

"Retail consumers are coming out looking for cars and trucks," Bob Carter, executive vice president of sales for Toyota Motor North America, told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "What hasn't yet returned to the auto industry is the fleet commercial buyer, particularly rental car. Those sales continue to be suppressed at about 20%."

Toyota reported a 25.7% decline in sales last month compared to May 2019. The company said its sales of more than 165,000 vehicles for the month still managed to top its internal expectations of 125,000 vehicles.

The pace of sales picked up in May, averaging 12.2 million vehicles on an annualized basis, according to Autodata. That means if the same number of vehicles were sold every month throughout the year, that would be the industry's total sales for 2020. That compares with an annualized sales rate of 8.6 million vehicles in April. 

Auto research firms expected new vehicle sales to be slightly less than 1.1 million vehicles in May, down by about 32% to 33% compared with May 2019. While better than expected, the industry's sales are still a long way off from last year, when automakers sold more than 17 million vehicles

Robert "Bob" Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., speaks during an event at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The reported sales provide some perspective on the industry's sales recovery in May. General Motors, Ford Motor and other major automakers in recent years switched from monthly sales reports to quarterly reports, so their monthly numbers are forecast.

Protests, riots

Carter said seven of the company's roughly 1,500 U.S. dealers have been affected by protesting and rioting following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

"The rioting, we believe, is unacceptable as is any form of racism," he said. "We're counseling our dealers to first be safe themselves, protect their customers, protect our consumers. We'll get through this, and there's better days ahead."

CEOs with each of the Detroit automakers sent messages to employees this week about Floyd's death, the protests and general racial tension in the U.S.

"On behalf of everyone at the company, I emphatically reject the hatred and prejudice that still tears at the fabric of our society and which led to the death of George Floyd and so many before him," Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley wrote in a Tuesday message.

Several dealerships from other companies on the West Coast and elsewhere were vandalized during demonstrations following the death of the 46-year-old unarmed black man last week, according to Automotive News.

Other automakers down

Hyundai on Tuesday reported a 12.9% decline in sales last month to 57,619 vehicles.

"We were able to achieve a remarkable retail sales rebound thanks to our dealer partners, implementation of digital retail tools and providing customers with the right offers," Randy Parker, Hyundai Motor America vice president of national sales, said in a release.

Other automakers reporting May sales Tuesday included:

  • Kia Motors reported May sales fell 23.7% to less than 46,000 vehicles compared to a year earlier.
  • Mazda Motor reported only a 1% decline in sales for last month. Sales for the year remain off 10.5%.
  • Volvo also reported a slight 2.5% decline in sales last month to about 9,500 vehicles sold. Its sales through May remain down 18.2%.