DETROIT – U.S. consumers bought a record number of new cars and trucks in 2016. A repeat performance in 2017 could be a tall order.
Low gas prices, rising employment and low interest rates kept buyers coming to car dealerships last year. There was also the lure of new technology – such as backup cameras, automatic emergency braking and Apple CarPlay – and new vehicles like the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, the Honda Civic and the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt.
U.S. vehicle sales totaled 17.55 million, beating the previous year’s record of 17.47 million, according to Autodata Corp. It was the seventh consecutive year of year-over-year sales gains, an unprecedented string, said Tom Libby, an analyst with the consulting firm IHS Markit.
That string could be in jeopardy, however. The National Automobile Dealers Association expects U.S. sales to drop to 17.1 million vehicles in 2017 as interest rates and vehicle prices rise. Large numbers of cars coming off leases will hit the used-car market next year, putting pressure on new car sales. And more buyers are opting for longer loans, so they won’t be returning to dealerships anytime soon.
Political issues could also impact sales. President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to impose a 35-percent tariff on vehicles made in Mexico and exported to the U.S., which would impact every major automaker. But he also has promised more spending on infrastructure, which could boost pickup truck sales.
“It is the year of unknowns,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with the car buying site Autotrader.com.
For now, though, the market has plateaued at a high level. Nissan Motor Co.’s U.S. sales rose 5 percent in 2016 to more than 1.5 million, a company record. The Subaru brand also set an annual record, with sales up 6 percent to 615,132. Honda Motor Co.’s sales jumped 3 percent to more than 1.6 million. Hyundai Motor Co.’s sales rose 2 percent to 775,005. Ford Motor Co.’s sales were up less than 1 percent to more than 2.6 million. Fiat Chrysler’s sales were flat at 2.2 million.
General Motors Co. said its year-over-year sales were down 1.3 percent to just over 3 million cars and trucks. That was partly because the company cut back on low-profit sales to rental-car firms. Toyota Motor Corp.’s full-year sales fell 2 percent to 2.4 million. Volkswagen brands sales dropped 8 percent to 322,948, hurt by the company’s diesel mileage cheating scandal.
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