Detroit Pickup Truck Sales Drop as US Auto Demand Poised to Slow

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Jeep Wrangler vehicles are unveiled during AutoMobility LA ahead of the Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, Calif. Nov. 29, 2017. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)

General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV reported hefty sales declines for the big trucks they’re overhauling this year, a troubling sign for a lucrative segment that’s held up well as the broader U.S. auto market shrinks.

Deliveries of Fiat Chrysler’s Ram pickup and GM’s Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra each fell by at least 15% in February. A surge in demand for Jeep sport utility vehicles carried Fiat Chrysler to better-than-expected total sales, while GM missed estimates.

Most major carmakers are expected to report a drop-off in demand in February. The annualized pace of sales, adjusted for seasonal trends, probably slowed to 16.9 million cars and light trucks from 17.5 million a year earlier, in line with expectations of a second-straight annual decline.

That would be the most sluggish pace since August, when Hurricane Harvey disrupted deliveries across the Texas Gulf Coast.

“This year is going to be a bitter but necessary pill for the auto industry to swallow,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds. “The industry is still in a fairly healthy place, but it may not feel like it since the last few years have been in record territory.”

Fiat Chrysler shares slipped as much as 2.1% March 1, while GM slumped as much as 1.8% as of 9:45 a.m. in New York trading.

The weak month for GM and Fiat Chrysler’s pickups may come as a surprise. Brian Johnson, a Barclays analyst, last month projected that large trucks’ share of total U.S. sales will rise to 13.7% in 2018, from 13.3% last year, as a stronger economy and small business tax reform help buoy big-vehicle demand.

“We’re in a post peak-demand world, so not every manufacturer will see increased sales each month,” said Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “The brands and models that provide the most emotional and practical solutions for today’s shopper — particularly SUVs and crossovers — will be the ones that succeed in this market.”