November U.S. new car sales mixed as automakers deepen discounts

Expect to encounter highly motivated sales people in December.

DETROIT — Major automakers posted mixed U.S. November new vehicle sales on Friday and predicted a competitive December as they rushed to sell vehicles and boost their numbers before 2017 ends.

Automakers are trying to sell down 2017 model-year vehicles, offering high discounts to consumers as the year-end nears. In 2016, the industry reported record annual sales of 17.55 million units.

According to consultancies J.D. Power and LMC, discounts have been above 10 percent of the average transaction price for 16 of the past 17 months, a level experts say is unhealthy and unsustainable.

The November sales results come as the National Automobile Dealers Association said on Friday it expects new vehicle sales to decline to 16.7 million units in 2018, after dropping to 17.1 million for the full year in 2017.

If that forecast comes true, the race to move new vehicles off dealers' lots will only intensify next year.

Brandon Mason, a director at PwC's automotive practice, said a worrying trend for the industry was a rising number of subprime loans. He said subprime levels are at just over 20 percent of originations, against more than 30 percent prior to the Great Recession, but recent increases remain a concern.

"That's a bit of a red flag," Mason said. "It's something to keep an eye on as we move into 2018."

November results by automaker:

General Motors: Sales fell 2.9 percent, with sales to consumers flat against the same month in 2016. Much of the decrease was driven by lower fleet sales. GM said strong SUV and crossover sales pushed its average transaction price for the month above $37,000 for the first time. The level of unsold cars, which has been a concern for analysts and the industry, rose slightly to 83 days' supply, from 80 days at the end of October.

"More vehicles are sold in December than any other month, and we are very well positioned because we have momentum in so many segments, but especially in crossovers," said Kurt McNeil, U.S. vice president of sales operations.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles: Fleet sales are low-margin, and FCA in particular has targeted a significant reduction in this type of sale in 2017. It posted a 4 percent overall decrease in sales for November, but fleet sales were down 25 percent while sales to consumers were up 2 percent on the year.

Ford: The No. 2 U.S. automaker reported a 6.7 percent increase for the month, with fleet sales up nearly 26 percent and retail sales 1.3 percent higher than in November 2016. Ford said SUV sales rose 13.3 percent, with pickups rising 4.1 percent.

Toyota: U.S. sales for the month were down 3 percent.

Honda: Up 8.3 percent.

Volkswagen: Down 1.6 percent.

Nissan: It said a systems outage meant it would not post official November results until Dec. 4, but estimated its U.S. sales rose 14 percent versus November 2016.

Reporting by Nick Carey

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