Automakers expect little impact from the federal government shutdown, and they predict a fourth-quarter rebound after a rare sales decline in September.
Auto sales dropped 4 percent from a year ago to just over 1.1 million, mainly due to a calendar quirk that pulled Labor Day weekend transactions into August's numbers. The drop ended a 27-month streak of gains for the industry.
General Motors, Honda and Volkswagen reported double-digit declines for September. Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai posted smaller decreases. Only Ford and Chrysler reported gains among the bigger automakers.
GM's 11 percent drop was its first since July 2012. It allowed Ford to get within 2,049 vehicles of unseating GM as the top U.S. automaker for the first time since May of 2011.
Most industry officials viewed September as an anomaly. They also downplayed the impact of the government shutdown, assuming it's a short one.
Kurt McNeil, GM's U.S. sales chief, said the fundamentals are still in place for GM and the industry to rebound in the coming months. Jobless claims are falling, home prices continue to recover, gas prices are down, household wealth is rising and the Federal Reserve has postponed the end of a bond-buying program that kept interest rates low, he said.
"As long as the underlying economic factors are supporting the business, which we believe they will through the end of this year and into 2014, we'll get through this turbulence," said Ken Czubay, Ford's U.S. sales manager.
Jim Lentz, Toyota's North American CEO, said people have grown used to dysfunction in Washington. The shutdown will affect sales only if it causes credit markets to tighten, Lentz said. That will be a problem, he said, because low interest rates and abundant credit have helped fuel the auto sales recovery.
One reason GM's sales fell last month was a reversal in pickup trucks, which have been hot-sellers. Sales of GM's full-sized pickups, the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, fell 8 percent even though the company is selling redesigned trucks.
Some versions of the trucks were slow to reach showrooms. At the same time, Ford's F-Series pickup, the top-selling vehicle in the nation, posted nearly a 10 percent increase, and sales of Chrysler's Ram truck rose 8 percent.
Pickup trucks are traditionally the top-selling vehicles in the United States, and they're key to automakers' profits. Companies make about $10,000 per truck.
McNeil said GM's sales should return to normal levels for the rest of the year. Through September, the company's sales are up almost 8 percent from a year ago.
At Honda, sales of the Accord, which have been hot all year, fell nearly 14 percent, while CR-V sales were off almost 4 percent.
On the positive side, Ford was led by sales of its Fusion midsize sedan, which jumped 62 percent over last September, and the subcompact Fiesta, which posted a nearly 29 percent gain.
n 8 percent
m 29 percent
m 62 percent
vs. last September
n 14 percent