DETROIT — Americans nervous about the drumbeat of bad economic news stayed away from auto showrooms in August, while automakers nervous about their bottom lines didn't offer deals to lure them in.
As a result, it was the worst August for U.S. auto sales since 1983, when the country was at the end of a double-dip recession. General Motors, Toyota, Honda and Ford all reported declines from the month before and from a year earlier.
The bleak results were a reminder that, for all the good news about the turnaround of the Detroit automakers, the market for cars and trucks in the United States remains frail. Initial data showed sales came in at about 997,000, down 5 percent from July, according to AutoData Corp.
"Coming in below a million units is eye-opening for August," said Paul Ballew, a former chief economist for GM. "I never thought I'd see that. That's a tepid month for August, which is supposed to be one of the top months of the year."
Last August, the government's Cash for Clunkers program offered rebates of up to $4,500 for trade-ins and helped sales, especially for fuel-efficient cars. There is no such incentive now.
In addition, automakers were stingy about deals. After years of painful restructuring, car companies have cut production and no longer need to offer big discounts to move cars off lots.
Automakers kicked in an average of $2,858 in incentives per vehicle last month, down $177 from the month before, according to J.D. Power and Associates. It was the fifth month of lowered or flat incentive spending.
"Buyers are still kind of wrestling with this new reality of incentives that aren't going to be as great as they've been in the past," said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates.
"Eventually they'll say, 'This is how it's going to be,' and come back."
Chrysler, which rolled out a new Jeep Grand Cherokee, was the only major automaker to report August gains. It also did not benefit as much as competitors from the Clunkers program because it relies more heavily on trucks and large cars.
Automakers figure total sales for this year will come in at about 11.5 million. In 2007, the last year before the recession struck the United States in force, sales came in at about 16 million.
High unemployment and the shaky housing market have made Americans reluctant to spend money. But Ford Motor Co.'s senior U.S. economist, Emily Kolinski Morris, noted that households are saving more money, cash that will be ready when they need a new car.
Also, more vehicles have been scrapped than sold over the past 18 months, indicating pent-up demand, she said.