Despite predictions of steep declines in the automotive business, sales increased slightly last year, staying higher than 17 million units for the fourth consecutive year in 2018. And in commercial vehicles, Class 8 truck sales topped ambitious, double-digit sales growth goals with more strength expected in 2019.

It wasn’t supposed to be this good. Going into 2018, most predictions called for steep declines in auto sales, and in commercial trucks, last year’s gains were even higher than the strong growth that had been predicted.

Heading into 2019, most of the predictions appear similar to where they were a year ago, for many of the same reasons. Research groups and some automakers predict sales will dip slightly below the 17 million mark in 2019 but stay near that figure (General Motors is an outlier, predicting sales similar to 2018’s). The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) prediction of 16.8 million sales is near the midpoint of predictions and a figure that would still make 2019 one of the top five years in the industry’s history.

On the commercial side, growth should slow as most major manufacturers are operating at full capacity, with order growth only extending the backlog of unbuilt vehicles. Component suppliers improved delivery rates in the second half of the year, so there is some potential for the large vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to boost production this year, but experts are calling for a 2019 plateau in build rates as producers work through their backlogs.

Automotive 2019

Most 2019 projections call for mild sales declines, but there’s a big difference between 2018’s erroneous pessimism and 2019’s forecasts – greater certainty. Going into 2018, major questions were facing the industry:

  • Would prices rise because of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum?
  • Would rising interest rates make monthly payments on new vehicles too expensive for consumers?
  • Would buyers continue opting for crossovers and SUVs in large enough numbers to offset declines in car sales?

A year later, we have answers – yes, no, and yes. Companies were able to pass higher metals costs to buyers by cutting cash-back incentives; interest rates rose several times, and the buying continued; cars continued their historic plunge in popularity, but bigger, new vehicles more than compensated.

For 2019, economists expect the Federal Reserve to keep rates steady or only raise them once or twice, eliminating that concern. Higher metals prices are pretty much baked into new vehicle pricing, so that concern has been addressed. And, several new SUVs and crossovers are heading to showrooms now or will be available by year’s end. GM officials are also predicting a strong 2019 due to a new line of pickups hitting showrooms, Toyota officials expressed excitement for the RAV4 SUV, and Subaru is increasing capacity for its SUVs.

Abandoning cars

Much of the automotive news in 2018 focused on the collapse in popularity for small cars – Ford’s announcement that it was scrapping most models by 2020, Fiat Chrysler’s (FCA’s) sales growth following its decision to eliminate car options in 2017, GM’s call to close five plants that produce cars or car components this year. As much as half of auto sales a decade ago, cars barely made up 30% of 2018’s numbers, and those figures could fall to lower than 20% this year following the GM and Ford nameplate eliminations.

FCA’s experience in 2018 could foreshadow great results for GM and Ford this year. The first automaker to dump most cars from its lineup, FCA was the fastest-growing major automaker last year with sales up 8.5%.

“This year's performance underscores the efforts we undertook to realign our production to give U.S. consumers more Jeep vehicles and Ram pickup trucks,” says Reid Bigland, head of U.S. Sales at FCA. “We see sales remaining solid in 2019 and we look forward to expanding our vehicle portfolio with the addition of the much-anticipated Jeep Gladiator (pickup).”

Patrick Manzi, NADA senior economist says low gasoline prices and better fuel economy for crossovers have been responsible for the shift to larger vehicles with “crossover utility vehicles nearly as fuel efficient as their sedan counterparts. And we’ve seen fuel economy increases across the board, not just on crossovers but also traditional SUVs and pickups. We also expect gasoline prices to remain relatively low in 2019, not as low as present but still low enough not to cause a panic and a consumer shift back to the car market.”

Lower totals

The NADA’s 16.8 million vehicles prediction is higher than the 16.7 million it predicted for 2018. Concerns about trade, the global economy, and signs that the U.S. economy may have peaked have NADA economists and others predicting declines again, though they are more optimistic than they were heading into 2018.

Dealers are especially concerned about decreasing affordability for new vehicles. The shift to larger, more expensive vehicles has been great for automotive profits, and consumers have been willing to pay higher prices for vehicles thanks to longer-term loans with low interest rates. OEMs have responded by lowering cash-back incentives, making vehicles more expensive. If interest rates continue to rise, monthly payments could shoot up, encouraging buyers to select smaller, less expensive options.

NADA Chairman Wes Lutz, president of Extreme Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep-Ram in Jackson, Michigan, says, “If incentives continue to go down and interest rates go up, it will put tremendous pressure on consumers with rising monthly payments. The level of interest rates moving forward will be a wildcard.”

Commercial truck 2019

First the bad news. Commercial truck orders slowed in the final months of the year. The good news – that was almost inevitable given the unprecedented order levels logged from late 2017 through the third quarter of 2018. And, given the massive backlogs for all of the major producers, the lower number of orders simply means the waiting lines for new vehicles won’t grow as quickly. If customers don’t order a single new truck in 2019, plants will still be rushing to catch up through the end of the year.

“For all of 2018, Class 8 orders totaled 490,100 units, far outstripping the previous annual order tally set in 2004 at 390,000 units,” says Kenny Vieth, president and senior analyst at ACT Research, a Columbus, Indiana, group that tracks the commercial market.

Executives at Paccar, Navistar, and Daimler trucks project higher sales for 2019, even if orders continue to slow. Navistar Chairman, President, and CEO Troy Clarke says companies are doing more than riding a wave of high sales. Commercial vehicle manufacturers are investing in new products, manufacturing efficiency, and technology.

“While we expect 2019 to be another strong year for Navistar and the industry, it's important to recognize that Navistar as an investment is much more than just a cycle play,” Clarke says. “As our ongoing improvements demonstrate, the company also has strong opportunities to benefit by recapturing market share, growing parts revenue, improving margins, generating free cash flow, and further de-risking the balance sheet.”

About medium-duty orders, Vieth comments, “After robust orders in November, Classes 5-7 orders moderated into the end of the year, falling to a six-month low of 21,500 units, and a considerable drop from the 25,200 unit-per-month average the medium-duty industry enjoyed throughout 2018.” He adds, “Seasonality is not a factor in December for medium-duty vehicles, but the month’s orders had the ignominy of being the first negative year-over-year comparison in 15 months, falling 4.6% compared to December 2017.”

In late 2018, Paccar CEO Ron Armstrong said increases in shipping, as customers order more goods for home delivery, coupled with fleets’ need to attract a shrinking pool of drivers by offering state-of-the-art new trucks is creating massive demand in Class 8 and medium-duty commercial vehicles.

“Kenworth and Peterbilt have received more than double the number of U.S. and Canada Class 8 orders in the first nine months of this year, compared to the same period last year,” Armstrong says.

Vieth warns that there are some signs that the commercial market may be slowing down a bit, saying economic indicators feature a few flashing yellow lights, though no red ones. The risk, he says, is a broad-based decline in the U.S. economy, not anything specific to trucking.

“Despite some caution creeping into the outlook, the heavy commercial vehicle market continues to benefit from a still-broad spectrum of supply and demand-side triggers,” Vieth adds.

Electric vehicle growth

Tesla Inc. finally hit volume production in 2018 following years of misses, and its rapid growth from 2018 should continue into 2019. The California-based electric car maker had intended to reach a 250,000-unit annual build rate on its Model 3 vehicle by the end of 2017 but missed that target badly. Tesla sold about 146,000 Model 3s in 2018, and it reached a 250,000-vehicles-per-year build rate in the final quarter.

“We started the year with a delivery run rate of about 120,000 vehicles per year and ended it at more than 350,000 vehicles per year – an increase of almost 3x,” Tesla officials say. “We’re starting to make a tangible impact on accelerating the world to sustainable energy.”

The company is still far from its goal of making affordable electric cars for average drivers – the Model 3s produced last year and for the foreseeable future were $50,000 units, not the $35,000 ones the company hopes to eventually make. However, it delivered nearly 250,000 units between its Model S, Model X, and Model 3, more than 5x the electric vehicle output of the combined GM Chevy Bolt EV (electric car) and Volt (plug-in hybrid), Nissan Leaf, and BMW i3 and i8 electrics. That puts electrics at about 1.7% of the U.S. market, up from 1.1% in 2017.

Traditional automakers had mixed electric results last year. Honda’s Clarity plug-in hybrid (PHEV) beat Chevrolet’s Volt to become the country’s favorite PHEV. Chevy has stopped producing the Volt. And while the Chevy Bolt all-electric car posted a 23% decline for 2018, GM officials say they’ve boosted production and expect much better numbers in 2019.

Tesla’s production successes, coupled with more aggressive electric plans from traditional automakers, could push electrics higher than 500,000 units in 2019, putting those vehicles on pace to hit about 3% market share.

Any growth Tesla experiences this year will be without the benefit of a $7,500 tax credit to encourage electric vehicle purchases. Tesla exceeded electric vehicle volumes for the credit in 2018, so its vehicle’s buyers can only receive a $3,750 credit this year, falling to nothing in 2020 (unless Congress passes new tax rules). GM’s Chevy Bolt is also slated to lose portions of its tax credits. Tesla responded by cutting vehicles prices by $2,000, making up much of the difference. But price hasn’t been much of an issue for Tesla, which sells the vast majority of its vehicles to luxury buyers willing to pay premium prices.

ACT Research

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)

National Automobile Dealers Association

Navistar Inc.

Paccar Inc.

Tesla Inc.