Sales of SUVs, trucks take off

Trucks, such as this Ford F-150, and SUVs were big sellers in October.

Grace Beahm

DETROIT -- Fans of SUVs and trucks shoved car buyers aside last month, helping propel sales in October to levels not seen since the start of the year.

The shift was a boon for Detroit's automakers, who posted sizable increases in sales of pickups such as the Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram, big SUVs like the Ford Explorer and compact models like the Ford Escape.

While sales of cars lost momentum from earlier in the year, some carmakers, including Hyundai and Volkswagen, continue to post impressive numbers and steal away their share of small car sales.

Toyota and Honda, for years the category leaders, continued to struggle with earthquake-related shortages of popular models.

U.S. car and truck sales were expected to top 1 million in October, a surprising number for a month when sales are usually slow. Sales are now tracking at a pace similar to the start of this year, before the March earthquake and tsunami cut off supplies.

Analysts expect them to stay at that pace through this year and into next year.

"The economy isn't expected to pick up significantly, and I think that's going to hold us in this pattern of slow growth, stability to slow growth," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive.

Pent-up demand helped October sales. Inventories of Japanese cars are getting close to normal, so car shoppers who spent the summer waiting for them to reappear on dealer lots could finally buy them in October.

Honda sales were flat compared to last October, while Toyota sales fell 8 percent. That still beat the double-digit drops the companies saw over the summer. Sales of the Accord sedan, Honda's best seller, were up 5 percent. Toyota said sales of its subcompact Yaris more than doubled.

Schuster said it still could take a little while for the companies to post year-over-year gains. Besides the lingering effects of the Japan earthquake, Honda has issues in Thailand, where flooding shut down its suppliers. That forced the car company to cut North American production through Nov. 10.

Deals inspired some buyers last month. Auto information site TrueCar.com said Honda raised its incentives by 18 percent to an average of $2,380 per vehicle, while Nissan's incentives were up 15 percent to $2,917.

Detroit automakers barely increased their incentive spending in October, but they did shift their marketing to trucks, a typical move during football season.

Trucks buyers paid attention. Ford said sales of its Explorer SUV more than tripled from a year ago, while F-Series truck sales were up 7 percent. Ford's overall sales were up 6 percent from a year ago, even though its car sales fell 8 percent.

"We weren't quite as strong in October as were throughout the year, but we are close to the national number in the 5 to 10 percent range in increased sales," said Graham Eubank of Palmetto Ford Lincoln in West Ashley. "It was still a solid month."

He added that more Ford trucks and SUVs sold, based on statewide numbers, possibly because of slightly lower fuel prices than earlier this year.

Eubank expects a slow, steady increase in car sales over the next year.

"I think it's going to be another six months or a year before we start seeing some strong improvement," he said.

Chrysler's sales rose 27 percent. Ram pickup truck sales jumped 21 percent. Sales of the Jeep Compass and Grand Cherokee SUVs were also strong.

General Motors' sales were up 2 percent. Sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup rose 11 percent. And the compact Chevrolet Cruze continues to sale along. Sales were more than double last year, when the car was first introduced.

Crews Chevrolet owner Robert Crews said sales were up 12 percent over last October at his North Charleston dealership, with the Silverado up 18 percent in sales because of aggressive incentives.

He also said the Cruze is still very popular, and it has been difficult to keep the new compact car, Sonic, in stock.

Crews attributed the sales increase to companies modernizing their fleets with trucks that get better gas mileage, have new styling and offer longer warranties.

He said car sales will continue to improve as inventories increase, customers have more to choose from and financing remains low.

Other automakers reporting results Tuesday:

--Nissan said sales were up 18 percent, thanks to big increases for the Altima sedan and Rogue crossover.

--Hyundai said sales rose 23 percent to 545,316, besting its full-year sales record from 2010. Sales of the new Elantra small car were up 37 percent.

Volkswagen said sales rose 40 percent, led by a 52 percent increase for the new Jetta sedan.

Warren L. Wise of The Post and Courier staff contributed to this report.