With low interest rates and cheaper gasoline to motivate them, and no polar vortex to keep them home, consumers went car-shopping in a big way in January.
New-vehicle sales rose 14 percent to 1.15 million, according to Autodata Corp. It was the best January in nine years. Car buyers found a few deals, but they were also attracted to popular new vehicles such as the Ford F-150 and Jeep Cherokee.
General Motors led the way with an 18 percent gain over last January. Encouraged by low gas prices, buyers snapped up GM’s big SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon.
Toyota’s sales rose 16 percent, and the Japanese automaker reported record January sales of its trucks and SUVs. Ford and Nissan each posted 15 percent gains. Fiat Chrysler’s sales rose 14 percent, and Honda’s sales were up 12 percent.
All automakers except Tesla Motors reported sales results on Tuesday.
January is typically a slow month for the auto industry. Buyers have less incentive to shop, since automakers offer fewer deals and promotions after the year-end shopping season and tax bills are looming. Bad weather can also keep customers away.
This January was a big improvement over last year, when the polar vortex caused record-setting cold in much of the country. This year’s Northeast blizzard at month’s end had no real impact on sales, said Erich Merkle, Ford’s U.S. sales analyst.
Gas prices continued to fall last month, hitting a six-year low of $2.03 per gallon on Jan. 26, according to AAA. That gave consumers the confidence to choose bigger vehicles.
Trucks, vans and SUVs were expected to account for 55 percent of sales to individual buyers in January, the highest percentage since 2004, according to the forecasting firm LMC Automotive. Sales of the behemoth Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator more than doubled.
Pickup-truck sales also correlate closely to home construction, and new-home construction rose sharply in December.
While incentives fell 10 percent from December, to $2,642 per vehicle, they were still about 4 percent higher than last January, according to car-shopping site TrueCar.com. That trend could continue; as the pace of growth slows, automakers may have to offer more deals to protect their market share.
Analysts expect U.S. sales to increase this year but at a slower pace than in recent years as sales approach the record of 17.3 million set in 2000. Sales rose 6 percent to 16.5 million in 2014; they’re expected to rise just 3 percent this year.
Available credit, low interest rates, stable home values and low gas prices are all boosting sales for now, says Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book.
“If those factors remain in place, new-vehicle sales will continue to rise, though a big shift in one or more could quickly slow things down,” Brauer says.
At GM, sales of the nine-passenger Chevrolet Suburban SUV more than doubled to 4,130, while Chevrolet Silverado pickup sales were up 25 percent. GM’s sales totaled 202,786 for the month.
Ford saw a 17 percent gain for F-Series pickup trucks as the new aluminum-bodied F-150 hit dealer lots. Ford Explorer SUV sales were up 28 percent, helping Ford achieve total sales of 171,732.
At Toyota, Prius hybrid sales were flat, the victim of low gas prices. But Toyota saw a 19 percent gain in truck and SUV sales. Toyota sold 169,194 vehicles in January.
As for other automakers:
— Fiat Chrysler’s January sales totaled 145,007. One of every three vehicles the company sold was a Jeep; sales of the new Jeep Cherokee small SUV were up 44 percent.
— Nissan sold 104,107 vehicles. Sales of Nissan’s new Murano crossover were up 72 percent. The Rogue and Pathfinder SUVs also posted double-digit gains.
— Honda sales totaled 102,184. Honda’s car sales were flat, but its truck and SUV sales jumped 25 percent, driven by the CR-V crossover and the outgoing Pilot SUV.
— Hyundai’s sales rose 1 percent to 44,505. The Santa Fe crossover was up 15 percent, but sales of small cars like the Elantra and Veloster fell.
— SUV-heavy Subaru said its sales jumped 24 percent to 40,812. Sales were led by the Outback SUV, which was up 38 percent.
— Volkswagen’s sales were flat at 23,504. Higher sales of the new Golf small car couldn’t make up for losses elsewhere.