U.S. Car Sales Continue Their Rise in September

Automobile sales continue to be a bright spot in the economy. Daniel Gross checks the numbers.

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In the U.S., cars constitute both the largest manufacturing sector and the largest sector of the vast retail industry. So it really matters how many cars are sold each month. We’ve entered an autumn full of fears of a slowdown. But while global growth sputters, and cracks are showing in the U.S. growth story, auto sales held up relatively well in September. Industrywide, sales came in at an annualized pace of 14.87 million. That’s better than analysts’ expectations of about 14.5 million.

A few important takeaways.

The Italian job, continued. Chrysler, which stood on the verge of liquidation just a few years ago, is sustaining its remarkable comeback under the leadership of Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne. Chrysler sales rose (PDF) 12 percent in September from last year, the 30th straight month of year-on-year gains. Chrysler has been energized by new products. It sold more than 4,100 Fiat 500s and 5,235 Dodge Darts—two recent introductions. Meanwhile, sales of the company’s iconic Jeeps rose 10 percent from last year. While September’s gains were less impressive than results from recent months, the figures show a company that is firing on almost all cylinders.

The Rising Sun. Last year was a terrible year for Japanese carmakers like Toyota and Honda. The tsunami and its aftermath disrupted the supply chain and made it impossible for dealers to stock vehicles at a time when overall demand was rising. But Toyota and Honda are back up at full speed. Toyota reported (PDF) September sales of 171,910 vehicles, up a whopping 41 percent from September 2011. From inexpensive models like the Scion to the upscale Lexus, sales were strong across the board. The company sold 26,747 hybrid vehicles in September—accounting for about 16 percent of its total. Honda’s sales were up by a smaller margin. U.S. Honda sales rose 30.9 percent from September 2011, to 117,211 units, led by gains in the Accord and the Civic.

Small is Beautiful. Rising gas prices and pinched incomes means Americans continue to show interest in smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Toyota and Honda’s results showed that. At General Motors, which sold 210,245 vehicles in September, up only 1.5 percent from a year ago, sales of passenger cars soared by 29 percent. The company sold nearly 26,000 Chevy Cruzes, up 42 percent from a year ago, and 2,851 units of the much-maligned Chevy Volt—a four-fold increase from a year ago.

The Big Picture. Sales of the Big Three—GM, Ford, and Chrysler—always tend to garner the biggest headlines. And in September, the Big Three’s results were less impressive than in previous months. But that has less to do with the weakness of the auto market, and more to do with the return of foreign automakers like Honda and Toyota to the marketplace in full force. The pie continues to expand, but foreign automakers are gobbling up slightly larger pieces this year than last. Good things happen in the U.S. when more cars are produced and more cars are sold. At a time of rising economic anxiety, the September car sales data offers some reassurance.