May 1, 2018 / 3:05 PM / 2 years ago

U.S. April auto sales show lackluster start to spring

DETROIT, May 1 (Reuters) - Major automakers on Tuesday posted lower new vehicle sales in April as consumer demand continued to weaken following a lengthy boom for the industry.

Auto sales have been on a bit of a roller coaster ride this year, with a weak performance in February followed by a jump in sales for some automakers in March.

Ford Motor Co posted a 4.7-percent decline in sales, with retail sales to consumers down 2.6 percent. The No. 2 U.S. automaker said sales of its popular pickup trucks were up 0.9 percent, but SUV and passenger car sales were down 4.6 percent and 15 percent respectively.

For years, U.S. consumers have been shifting away from traditional passenger cars in favor of larger and more comfortable pickup trucks, SUVs and crossovers.

But the number of new models vying for a share of that market is growing faster than demand, threatening the fat profits automakers have enjoyed.

"That is a very competitive part of the market ... with so many new entries," Ford's U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve said of the SUV segment on a conference call with analysts and reporters.

Last year, U.S. auto sales fell 2 percent after hitting a record high of 17.55 million units in 2016. Sales are expected to fall further in 2018 as higher interest rates push up monthly car payments. Also, millions of nearly new vehicles will return to the market this year after coming off lease, providing a lower-cost alternative for consumers.

"We believe the industry continues to operate at a very healthy level," Ford's LaNeve said. "With a plateauing market, you are going to get some bumpiness."

Nissan Motor Co Ltd's sales hit quite a bump, plunging 28 percent in April. The Japanese automaker's passenger cars dropped nearly 35 percent and SUV and truck sales were down 23.1 percent. Even sales of the company's popular SUV crossover model Rogue were down almost 15 percent.

No. 1 U.S. automaker General Motors Co announced last month that it would no longer report monthly sales and instead will just post sales on a quarterly basis. But industry estimates showed the company posting a monthly decline for April of anywhere up to 8 percent.

Ford said on Tuesday it will continue to post monthly sales.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) posted an overall sales increase of 5 percent in April. But retail sales to consumers were down 1 percent while lower-margin fleet sales to rental car companies and government agencies were up 5 percent.

Sales of the company's popular Jeep brand hit a record for the month. But sales of FCA's Ram pickup truck were down 9 percent in April.

FCA said last week when it reported first-quarter results that it had encountered problems ramping up production of the new RAM 1500 pick-up truck at its U.S. Sterling Heights plant.

Toyota Motor Corp posted a 4.7 percent decline in sales for April, with a 1.5 percent increase in SUV and pickup truck sales offset by a 12.7 percent drop in passenger car sales.

Sales of the company's recently revamped flagship Camry sedan were down 5 percent.

In late morning trading, Ford shares were flat, GM was down 44 cents or 1.2 percent at $36.31 and FCA was down 0.6 percent or 13 cents at $21.70.

Reporting by Nick Carey Editing by Nick Zieminski

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