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US car sales slump but Fiat Chrysler surges

Fiat Chrysler's North American subsidiary FCA US saw a sales growth of 15% compared to the year-ago period, on the strength of its refreshed Jeep SUV and Ram truck models.


ALMOST ALL major auto makers reported that North American sales declined on Tuesday, meeting analyst expectations for a pull-back by consumers in the second half of the year.

Compared to September 2017, sales at Ford, Toyota, and Nissan all declined 10 per cent or more. Honda was down 7 per cent. The exception was Fiat Chrysler, where its North American subsidiary FCA US saw a sales growth of 15 per cent compared to the year-ago period, on the strength of its refreshed Jeep SUV and Ram truck models.

General Motors, which no longer reports monthly figures, said sales in the third quarter were down 11 per cent.

"September doesn't appear to have many surprises this year," said Cox Automotive economist Charlie Chesbrough. "Sales reports are showing declines for most manufacturers, as expected."

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The recovery last year from catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey boosted auto sales during the equivalent time period - making this year's early fall numbers look even worse by comparison.

Analysts have been concerned that higher gas prices, rising interest rates, a large supply of relatively new pre-owned cars, and tariffs potentially raising prices, could depress demand in the new car market.

The US Federal Reserve last week raised a key interest rate for the eighth time in two years.

"Results from August and now September suggest our expectations of a slowing market are correct," Mr Chesbrough said.

"With more interest rates hikes expected this year, and continued increases in transaction prices, monthly payments are rising and some car buyers are getting squeezed out of the market."

But GM chief economist Elaine Buckberg pointed to strong US consumer confidence and a robust job market, predicting 2018 would end with total industry sales above 17 million units.

"The US economy and auto industry remain strong," Ms Buckberg said in a statement. "A new United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement will reduce uncertainty for the auto industry and all three countries."

In the last three months, all five of the brand names GM sells in the United States lost ground. Chevrolet had the sharpest decline of 11.4 per cent.

On a bright note, the company said its average sales price was US$4,000 above the industry average, reflecting continuing strong demand for trucks and SUVs.

"At Ford and GM, trucks and SUVs accounted for over 80 percent of sales, a testament to the consumer's ongoing desire for utility," said Kelley Blue Book analyst Rebecca Lindland.

German automakers also struggled in September, along with their Japanese and American counterparts. Volkswagen was down nearly five percent, and Mercedes-Benz USA declined nearly six percent.

BMW Group eked out a two-tenths of a percent increase on strong demand for BMW-brand light trucks. Sales of the MINI brand compact cars declined more than 7 per cent.

The slowdown was in stark contrast to the first half of the year, when total US auto sales rose 1.9 per cent compared to the first half of 2017. AFP

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