Have automakers stopped reporting monthly sales to hide bad news?
Every second week of the month, the industry trade rag Automotive News publishes the monthly and year-to-date sales numbers for most models of light vehicles sold in the U.S. Those dizzying columns of digits represent the electrocardiogram of the auto industry, closely watched by the automakers, their suppliers and dealers, and the thousands of other businesses that depend on the trade. However, this summer, the last of the domestic automakers pulled the figurative plug on the machine, with Ford and FCA joining GM and Tesla in declaring they will only supply sales figures every quarter.
GM started this boulder rolling in April 2018 when Kurt McNeil, the company’s vice president for sales operations, said that “thirty days is not enough time to separate real sales trends from short-term fluctuations in a very dynamic, highly competitive market.” Investors and the media cried foul, saying the company is dimming the lights on transparency so it’s easier to hide bad news. Once upon a more optimistic time, the automakers reported sales figures every 10 days.
Well, at the halfway mark in 2019 this past June, the numbers sure enough painted a picture of high drama if you take time to study them. For example, if you’re wondering why Ford is largely abandoning the car business, consider that, for the first six months of 2019, the combined sales of seven Ford models of passenger cars—in current production or as existing inventory being sold down—did not add up to even half of what the Ford F-series pickup alone sold in the same period. During that stretch, Ford sold five trucks for every car it moved. Excluding sales of the Mustang, all of Ford and Lincoln’s current car line together—Fiesta, Fusion, Taurus, MKZ, Continental (Focus production ended in May 2018)—was handily outsold by the Honda Civic. At Ford, the car business is not a business, it’s an expensive hobby.
One car Ford says it will keep in production is the Mustang, which at 38,542 sales for the first half of 2019, did the best among its direct competitors. Dodge has done great things with the Challenger (28,668 sales), now almost 12 years old and cooking along with ever-changing trim packages, the halo Hellcat and Demon models, optional all-wheel drive, and the sexy wide-body, but no convertible. Meanwhile, the Camaro, at 24,516 sold, ranks last of the three, a noteworthy sputter considering the Camaro is also the newest and just had a face-lift for 2019. Blame the core styling, which didn’t evolve enough in the 2016 redesign, and Chevy’s emphasis on high-dollar specials rather than the more affordable options. It isn’t the only Chevy that’s misfiring; in a major coup, the Ram pickup (299,480 sales so far) overtook the Chevy Silverado pickup (255,463 units). Both are freshly redesigned, but the Ram has been called better-looking and more luxurious-feeling.
In July, BMW CEO Harald Krüger resigned after four years in the job, a relatively short tenure for chief executives at the Munich maker. Among the problems, BMW’s small-car offshoot, Mini, has been in free fall. Increasingly irate dealers—a former chairman of the dealer council is suing BMW of North America for failing to invest in Mini—managed to move only 17,583 cars. Yes, the entire Mini marque, seven distinct models, is being outsold by the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. At least this isn’t as dire as Fiat: With 5103 sales racked up in six months, the Italian brand is being beaten in the States by the Nissan Leaf electric. Alfa isn’t doing much better, at just over 9000 cars sold.
You can see why some automakers would prefer to hide in the darkness.