The elephant in the room for September sales is Volkswagen, which spent more than 40 percent of September in a diesel crisis that compelled the sales stoppage of around 20 percent of its cars. A survey released today by AutoPacific, a research consultancy, found that favorable opinions among all VW vehicle owners had dropped from about 75 percent before the crisis to just 25 percent now.
Despite all that, Volkswagen-brand sales eked out a 0.6 percent gain in September. That’s mostly from Tiguan and GTI gains, two models without U.S. diesel availability. Cars with diesel variants — the Golf, Jetta, Beetle and Passat — all fell in September sales.
Have VW shoppers shrugged off the crisis? Not so fast.
Consider two factors. First, Volkswagen sales should have considerably outpaced September 2014, when sales plummeted 18.6 percent despite a market that gained 9.4 percent, according to Automotive News. Second, this year’s September sales include Labor Day. That’s traditionally a big holiday weekend for auto sales, but one usually lumped into August’s sales figures. This year’s late Labor Day pulled it into September, which inflates any year-over-year comparisons versus a holiday-weekend-less September 2014.
The numbers are all sky-high. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles gained 13.6 percent; Ford rose to 23 percent and GM, 12.5 percent. In fact, GM’s increase was the smallest of the top seven automakers — a group that excludes the Volkswagen Group — and it goes to show just how big of a month September looks like from a percentage standpoint. Combined, the Big Seven gained 16.2 percent. Nissan and Hyundai-Kia, up 18.3 percent and 17.8 percent apiece, said they set September sales records.
The calendar anomaly, which made August sales seem weaker, makes it difficult to gauge how much of this stemmed from the additional big sales weekend. None of the top 10 best-selling cars had sales decreases, and eight of them saw double-digit gains. The list itself is largely the same; the lone car to drop off is the Nissan Altima, which has been among the top 10 since April.
Previously weak segments suddenly saw gains. Subcompact sedans and hatchbacks, down every single month since April, are up 1.1 percent. Midsize family sedans, which have flat-lined all year long, are up 8.7 percent. Sales of full-size, truck-based SUVs, which tailed off since spiking early this year amid cheap gas, are back up.
Strong indicators going into September — sustained consumer confidence, continuing strength in the construction sector, lower unemployment — suggest an improving economy despite a still-stagnant stock market. We’ll have a better idea of the impact to auto sales in October, when the calendar is more comparable to the year-ago month. Stay tuned.
Here are September’s 10 best-selling cars: