With March auto sales infected by the coronavirus, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported sales declines of 10% for the first quarter of the year, while General Motors Co. was off 7%, brought low by a dismal last few weeks after a healthy January and February.

Wednesday's quarterly sales reports from automakers are the first since the U.S. was hit by the coronavirus crisis which has closed auto plants and many showrooms. Ford Motor Co. won't release its January-March sales numbers until Thursday.

The pain spread across all sectors of the automotive market. Hyundai and Porsche saw sales decelerate, with the Korean manufacturer's sales down 43% in March alone. Including its abysmal March results, Hyundai reported an 11% drop in the first quarter. Porsche first-quarter sales were off by 20.2% from a year ago after a record 2019.

The industry is bracing for difficult months ahead. After a record five years of annual sales over 17 million units in the U.S., sales were expected to slow in 2020, according to J.D. Power forecasts, to a still healthy 16.8 million units. Sales at the start of the year were promising even as automakers put more money on the hood to keep customers coming.

But with automakers poised for the spring selling season beginning in March, COVID-19 has changed the landscape.

Some 70% of the country's population is operating under state shelter-at-home orders including major markets like California and New York. According to a University of Michigan survey, consumer sentiment tumbled last month to its lowest level since the 2008 Great Recession and is projected to hits its largest two-month decline ever.

As of Monday, at least 35 states had issued executive orders limiting non-essential business activity affecting dealerships.

Dealers across the country are offering no-interest loans and 84-month lease terms to entice buyers. GM and its dealers are offering concierge service, courtesy transportation, and home delivery where permissible. But permissible varies by state.

In Michigan, even online sales have been suspended until April 14.

The Michigan Automobile Dealers Association has advised its members that automotive sales remain closed under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's business guidelines. Only service, parts and body-shop operations are allowed to stay open.

"We are still actively talking with customers, answering questions and booking appointments for when the governor's executive order lifts on April 14," said a spokesperson for Lafontaine Automotive Group.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted that state's ban on online sales March 27. "This is an enormous win," said New York State Auto Dealer Association President Bob Vancavage in a statement. Dealers "have been working non-stop to craft an exemption under the essential business guidelines to allow dealers to do what they do best: sell cars."

In California, the nation's largest auto market, the California New Car Dealers Association has advised all 1,400 showrooms to comply with Gov. Gavin Newsom's shutdown order.

Even home-team Tesla was forced to shut down production and showroom deliveries of its electric cars . The shutdown comes as the Silicon Valley automaker is launching its first entry-level SUV, the Model Y. Analysts expect Tesla sales to be off 30%.

The Golden State's first-in-the-nation shelter-in-place order on March 16 showed ominous signs for the industry as sales cratered by 86% the first weekend after the order. J.D. Power expects that pattern to continue in other states that have enacted stay-at-home orders.

For Detroit automakers, core truck lines were a bright spot for the quarter, even when the disruption of March was included.

In GM's stable, the Chevy Silverado pickup roared to 26% sales gains over a year ago with 114,313 units sold. The brand's SUV lineup did not fare as well with sales down significantly, save the entry-level, $22,295 Trax SUV.

Indeed, outside of pickups and the low-volume Bolt electric car, only the affordable Trax and entry-level Spark sedan saw sales gains. That trend will be watched closely as small vehicles also saw a big gain during the last, 2008 downturn.

Overall, Chevy saw the least degradation among GM brands with sales off 3.8%. GMC dropped 5.5 percent (the Silverado's Sierra cousin the exception at plus31%), Cadillac 15.8% and Buick 34.7%.

For Fiat Chrysler, the popular Ram pickup lifted sales 7% to 128,805 vehicles while sales of the family-friendly Chrysler Pacifica minivan climbed 5%. Jeep's all-new Gladiator pickup continued to impress with its third consecutive quarter of 15,000-plus sales.

Despite the sales gloom, TrueCar projected the average transaction price of vehicles to be up 3.2% in March 2020. Transaction prices have been key to industry profit margins, but TrueCar analyst Eric Lyman sounded a cautionary note as COVID-19's effect on sales did not set in until mid-month.

"Historically, there's been a strong correlation between consumer confidence and average transaction price," he said. "We're now seeing one of the largest one-month declines in consumer confidence in nearly 50 years. April will provide a much clearer picture of the full impact caused from the coronavirus."

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

 

 

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