U.S. sales of the Buick Cascada convertible dropped 34 percent in the first half of 2018. Photo credit: DAVID PHILLIPS
DETROIT — General Motors’ crossovers and trucks are doing what they were built to do: haul and tow.
Specifically, they’re towing the wreckage of the company’s car sales, which declined 18 percent through the first half of the year, vs. a 12 percent rise in light-truck sales. Cars now represent just 21 percent of GM’s sales in the U.S., down from more than 25 percent a year ago.
The results — reflected in an aggregated second-quarter sales update that follows GM’s shift away from monthly sales reporting — provide the clearest sign so far of how badly GM is faring in the car market this year, and how much heavy lifting is being done by its trucks.
The numbers will test the strength of GM’s commitment to the market at a time when its Detroit rivals are pulling out of key car segments and GM’s own executives are increasingly willing to withdraw from markets where the company struggles to make money.
GM North America President Alan Batey told Automotive News last month that GM didn’t intend to make any drastic cuts to its car lineup, though some models are reportedly in line for a repositioning or phase-out.
GM last month announced it would invest $175 million in a Lansing, Mich., plant to build two of Cadillac’s next-generation sedans. It has also announced refreshed versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Cruze, Malibu and Spark for the 2019 model year, which executives believe could help revitalize sales of passenger cars.
Many of the changes are on lower-priced versions of the cars, where Chevrolet believes most of the growth in the segments will come.
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“The car market today still is very vibrant,” Steve Majoros, Chevrolet’s marketing director for cars and crossovers, said when unveiling the cars in April. “We have a strong opinion on this and we’re bullish on the car market.”
One bright spot for GM’s cars has been the redesigned Buick Regal, which shifted from a traditional sedan to fastback and wagon variants. Sales are up 27 percent this year.
But there were few others. Leading GM’s decline in car sales this year are the Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette performance cars, Cruze compact, Sonic subcompact and Volt plug-in hybrid. All were down 25 percent or more from a year earlier.
The Sonic and Volt are reportedly on the chopping block, with the Volt possibly being recast as a crossover. The Chevrolet Impala large sedan, which was down 12 percent through the first six months, also is believed to be part of that group.
The Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac CT6 large sedans were each down about 10 percent, and the Buick Cascada convertible sank 34 percent.
Among the few automakers doing worse than GM in cars are Volkswagen, with its aging car lineup, down 24 percent, and Fiat Chrysler, which exited the compact and midsize car segments, down 20 percent.
Ford’s car sales were down 14 percent, and the industrywide figure was down 12 percent, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Ford has said it will eventually stop selling sedans under its namesake brand to focus on pickups, crossovers and SUVs.
Meanwhile, nearly every GM crossover model experienced double-digit increases, led by a more than 30 percent gain for the large Chevrolet Traverse and compact GMC Terrain.
GM’s overall sales were up 4.2 percent for the half.
Where’s the bottom for cars? That’s what analysts and industry insiders have been wondering as they’ve watched the category shrink from a recent peak of 55 percent of the market in 2009 to 32 percent so far this year.
“We had been forecasting cars would represent only 30 percent of all U.S. vehicle sales” when they finally settle down, said Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs. “But that number may prove too high.”
Shifts back to cars usually happen when fuel prices go up, and consumers opt for more fuel-efficient vehicles.
But analysts don’t expect today’s rising gasoline prices to push consumers into cars from crossovers in large numbers, given the efficiency gains of larger utility vehicles.
What could slow the trend is vehicle affordability, said Charlie Chesbrough, Cox Automotive senior economist and senior director of industry insights. Despite sharing platforms with cars, crossovers are thousands of dollars more expensive.
“If we get into a situation where interest rates go extremely high or buying conditions change such that folks are losing jobs or in an affordability crisis, then we might see car share actually stabilize a bit or even pick up a little bit as folks have to look at lower-cost alternatives,” he said. “Barring that, I think we’re looking at this trend to continue indefinitely of cars declining.”