September 2009 Auto Sales

It was good while it lasted. The free money flowing out of the cash-for-clunkers spigot proved to be an even better party starter than its architects dreamed it would be, but it couldn't last forever. Everyone knew that September was going to bring on one bad hangover once the keg of rebate cash sputtered and died toward the end of August. However, it was probably time to hang it up anyway, as most clunkers-eligible would-be buyers had already been pulled in off the sidelines, and many dealers' showrooms were bare.

So, after a giddy couple of months, the September auto sales rate collapsed in a heap onto the confetti-strewn floor, returning to the lows of earlier this year. What's interesting is that all of the major manufacturers were hit hard. Of course, they all participated in the clunkers frenzy, so the September fall-off was a natural byproduct.

Conversely, those nameplates that were not clunkers-eligible -- mostly the high-end luxury marques -- saw little or no decline from August. So things aren't really getting worse, they've just returned to the new normal. Unfortunately, the new normal stinks.

September versus August sales, percent change [Source: Automotive News]

The Big Asians had a bigger hangover than the domestics.
Toyota -44%
The September sales drop-offs were proportional to each model's clunkers-cash eligibility. So the Lexus division (-22%) fared best, and in fact was ahead of last year thanks to the new RX and the addition of the HS250 hybrid. Scion (-66%) did the worst and has been suffering for a while now. The Toyota division (-44%) was in the middle. Similarly, on the truck side, sales of non-clunkers-eligible fat boys like the Sequoia (+45%) and the Land Cruiser (+16%) were up over August, while clunkers-cash recipients such as the RAV4 (-43%), the Highlander (-51%), and the Tacoma (-40%) fell hard.

Honda -52%
Honda's clunkers darlings did not fare well in September. The Accord saw its sales cut in half (-48%), while the Civic fell nearly two-thirds (-63%) and the Fit dropped three-quarters (-76%). Acura fared better overall and had Honda's only two vehicles in positive territory: the RDX (+3%) and the RL (+1%).

Nissan -47%
As was typical for September, Nissan's luxury division, Infiniti (-15%), fared better than its mainstream one, Nissan (-50%). The biggest gas-guzzlers were able to improve upon their (admittedly pathetic) August performance: QX56 (+11%), Armada (+30%), Titan (+24%), Pathfinder (+9%), GT-R (+11%). The Maxima (+30%) also powered ahead.

Hyundai/Kia -47%
Hyundai/Kia sales were so inflated during the clunkers boom that, even though they were cut nearly in half in September, they were still far above year-ago levels (Hyundai +27%, Kia +24% compared to last year). A handful of other brands also beat their September '08 figures, but none by as great a margin as the Korean wonder twins. Even with massive drops compared to August, the Accent (-52%) and the Elantra (-65%) are still strong, as are the Genesis (-28%) and the Optima (-20%).

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