April showers may result in May's flowers, but it didn't result in great car sales numbers.
Overall, sales in April only climbed 2.3 percent compared to April 2011, leaving some carmakers and observers scratching their head. Of course, the raw numbers, as provided by AutoData Corp., also note that there were three fewer selling days due to that occasional month with five Sundays in it. Imagine the pain people paid on the 1st and 15th had to endure?
So the numbers may not be as bad as a first glance might suggest, and in my opinion, the slow pace of growth is better for automakers. Rather than big ups and downs that leave dealerships empty of popular vehicles and overstocked with others, a steady mild increase means it's easier to match production to demand.
But there are plenty of outliers in the pages of spreadsheets when you look inside the numbers. So here are the 10 things I think I know about the auto industry based on April's sales.
1. DETROIT'S ACHILLES HEEL: TRUCKS
The recovery in Detroit is real. Both General Motors and Chrysler continue to show appeal and profits post-bankruptcy. Ford, which leads Motor City's renaissance, also continues to blaze ahead. But there's an underlying weakness that all three have: An unbalanced portfolio of vehicles.
Ford and GM both saw sales drop in April – 5.1 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively. Chrysler, meanwhile, saw sales soar 18 percent. But really, all three carmakers really should be called truckmakers. And Chrysler, which is the most dependent on trucks, is the only Detroit-based company to narrow its gap between trucks and cars sold – 67 percent of its vehicles sold in April were trucks, as opposed to 70 percent in April 2011. Ford saw its percentage of trucks sold grow from 61 percent to 63 percent, and GM from 53 percent to 58 percent. That means they're losing business in the car section of sales.
Ford and GM both saw sales drop in April – 5.1 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively. Chrysler, meanwhile, saw sales soar 18 percent.
No other automaker sells more trucks than it does cars and that leaves them better prepared for spikes in high gas prices, growing CAFE standards and other perils along the way.
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Trucks may pay the bills, but depending on them too heavily can be dangerous, or am I the only person who can remember past five years?
2. SMALL CAR LEADERSHIP: THE HONDA CIVIC?
Was anyone else surprised to see that the top-selling small car (compact and below) was the Honda Civic? If you read most reviews, the Civic falls somewhere around fifth place in the segment, behind the likes of the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze and upcoming Dodge Dart. And the Civic wasn't even the top-selling compact in April, with the Toyota Corolla beating it out 24,804 units to 24,423 units. But through April, the Civic, at 101,592 units, is the top-selling compact car in the United States. No other vehicle has topped 100,000 units.
What do consumers know that critics don't? Maybe it's just that Civic just keeps going down the road. Other cars can speed past for a while, but the Civic catches up and rolls on by, just like it always does.
3. ONE IDEA, ONE VEHICLE, ONE BRAND: RAM
I still have a hard time seeing Ram as a brand. The word "Dodge" just seems to go in front of the word "Ram." But Chrysler Group wants it to be seen as a brand, so I'll honor its request and point out that even losing Ram 1500-3500 pickups from Dodge's roll, Dodge stacks up well against other brands in April.
By volume, Dodge – sans Ram – falls from the No. 5 to the No. 8 selling brand in the U.S., right above Jeep.
Meanwhile, Ram does pretty well, too, selling 21,126 units and landing at No. 16 for U.S. brands in April, right between Mazda and BMW.
4. LINCOLN'S NUMERICAL PERSPECTIVE
Ford's luxury brand, Lincoln, continues to struggle, even as the Blue Oval tries to revive it. And while I really like the looks of the new 2013 MKZ, I'm not sure how much it will help the brand, which is the worst-selling mainstream luxury brand in America – behind Infiniti, Cadillac, Audi, Buick, Lexus, BMW and Mercedes Benz for the month of April and for the year.
Ford's luxury brand, Lincoln, continues to struggle, even as the Blue Oval tries to revive it.
Just look at these completely unfair apples to bananas comparisons.
Total Lincoln vehicles sold in April: 6,308.
Total BMW 3 Series sales in April: 6,581.
Total Lincoln vehicles sold this year: 27,144.
Total Toyota Prius sales in April alone: 25,168.
5. ELECTRICS SAPPED OF ENERGY
I still can't make sense of electric vehicle sales. The Nissan Leaf sold 370 units in April, down 35.4 percent compared to last year. The Chevrolet Volt sold 1,462 units, up 197 percent compared to last April, but down nearly 1,000 units compared to last month. The Mitsubishi i sold 79 units, which may have created 79 disgruntled greenies. Tesla doesn't release its numbers through AutoData Corp., though its monthly sales figures are bound to be in the tens of vehicles, maybe.
There is room for electrics in the U.S. market, but a more telling sign is that the best-selling electric-ish vehicle was the all-new Toyota Prius Plug-In hybrid. This car can travel about 11 miles on electric power before its Wonder Twin powers evaporate, and it reverts to the shape of a regular gas-electric hybrid. Toyota sold 1,762 units in April.
6. AMERICANS WHO PREFER HYBRIDS, PREFER TOYOTA HYBRIDS
Speaking of hybrids, it appears that Americans love only Toyota hybrids. The Prius, with its three new additions to the family, the Prius V, Prius C and Prius Plug-In, sold more than 25,000 total units – making it the third best-selling car in the U.S. during April. Sales are up 55.7 percent for the year. (Though some of that increase could be attributed to the post-tsunami times of last year.)
All of the other hybrids pale in comparison. The second highest-selling hybrid sold in April was the Toyota Camry hybrid, hitting 4,406 units. The Hyundai Sonata hybrid was No. 3 at 4,104 units. All told, there were 42,116 hybrids – 3.6 percent of the car market – sold in April. Of all hybrids sold in April, Toyota accounted for 77 percent of them. In the coming years, it's likely to lose share, but not any time soon.
Of all hybrids sold in April, Toyota accounted for 77 percent of them.
Of course, one little known secret is that currently, GM offers the second-most hybrid models at eight (many are mild hybrids), not including the Volt. Toyota currently offers nine.
7. EARLY LEAD FOR THE DODGE GRAND CARAVAN
While Toyota may own the hybrid segment, it is losing its grip with minivans, after its Sienna became the best-selling vehicle in that segment last year. Through April, the Dodge Grand Caravan has taken a big lead, selling 45,645 units. The Chrysler Town & Country is No. 2 at 38,507, Honda's Odyessy is No. 3 at 38,133 and the Toyota Sienna has sold 33,651 through the year.
Overall, minivan sales are up nearly eight percent for April and 10.6 percent for the year. While the race is still too close to call, Toyota has fallen nearly a month behind in sales, which makes it difficult to catch up.
8. SOME SEGMENTS ARE JUST GIVEN AWAY
American truck makers may have a stranglehold on the fullsize pickup segment, but they've given away the small truck pickup group. In fact, the Toyota Tacoma is the biggest of the little trucks, selling 10,901 pickups in April. The Nissan Frontier was a distant second at 4,148 pickups sold in April.
For the year, Japanese pickup makers have outsold American small truck builders two to one. And as the supply of leftover Ford Ranger trucks dwindle down, as it was discontinued in December, that gap is only going to widen.
9. DISCONTINUED BUT NOT UNSOLD
The Ford Ranger is not the only discontinued vehicle that continues to sell. Ford also sold 372 Crown Victoria sedans in April (as well as 74 Lincoln Town Cars). Cadillac sold 39 DTS models and 20 STS models. Chevy sold a single Cobalt. Buick sold 60 Lucernes. Mazda sold 18 RX-8s and 16 Tribute hybrids. Mitsubishi sold 103 Eclipses and 45 Endeavors. And it appears someone returned a Volvo S40. No one bought a Mercury or a Saab in April.
10. DODGE CALIBER VS. DODGE DART
The accolades continue to race around the web about how good the 2013 Dodge Dart is. And, really, it is a good compact car. It's so good, I think when the Dart goes on sale, it's going to crush Dodge's compact car sales.
When the Dart goes on sale, it's going to crush Dodge's compact car sales.
Currently, the Dodge Caliber has sold 6,646 units this year. In April, it sold 1,408 – meaning the Chevy Volt outsold it at nearly double the price.
Judging by how poorly the Caliber is performing – both on the road and at dealerships – I think Dodge will sell more Darts in July than Calibers for the year.
But we'll have to wait and see. Until then, remember, numbers don't lie, but people with numbers can.