Americans continued to snap up pickup trucks in the first quarter of this year, even as the overall auto market showed signs of cooling.
Automakers sold almost 636,000 pickup trucks during the first three months of this year, a 5.2 percent gain compared with the same period a year earlier.
The industry sold 4 million vehicles of all types in the first quarter, down 1.5 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp.
But there were signals even within the pickup truck segment that consumers might be nearing the end of their buying binge.
Midsize pickup trucks – which experienced a 25.5 percent boost in 2016 – have climbed just 2.5 percent so far this year. All of the gain has come from the Honda Ridgeline, a redesigned pickup coming back from a sales hiatus. Honda sold 9,724 Ridgelines during the first quarter. It sold just one in the same period a year ago.
Meanwhile, sales of its rivals – Toyota Tacoma, Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon and Nissan Frontier – all fell during the first quarter. Sales of the aging Frontier plunged 27.2 percent to 15,566 units compared with the same period a year earlier.
The full-size pickup truck market was mixed. Ford F-Series, Ram and Nissan Titan sales rose. But General Motors sold fewer Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. Sales of Toyota Tundras sagged more than 9 percent. Overall sales in the full-size pickup truck segment are up 5.7 percent over the same period a year earlier.
Some of the factors that have pushed the pickup truck boom since the industry cratered at 10.4 million in annual total auto sales back in 2009 have started to ebb, said Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights for auto price forecasting firm ALG.
The economic recovery fostered trucks sales for building and construction trades.
“Vehicles that might have been replaced in fleets that required trucks have probably been replaced,” Lyman said.
Likewise, individual truck owners also have replaced older vehicles, he said.
Recent periods of low gas prices also encouraged sales of pickup trucks. But fuel prices are starting to creep up and will cool consumer ardor for pickups, Lyman said.
“Sales of pickups will fall back to overall industry growth because there is nothing else left to create disproportionate demand going forward,” he said.
For now, some manufacturers continue to see brisk sales of pickups.
“Our high-series Super Duty trucks and all new F-150 Raptor drove double digit F-Series sales gains in March, along with the strongest year-over-year increase in transaction prices of any truck manufacturer in the industry,” said Mark LaNeve, Ford’s U.S. sales chief.
But businesses may be pulling back.
Ford’s commercials sales fell 1.2 percent in the first quarter, with its E-Series vans, Transit, Transit Connect and heavy duty trucks all suffering sales declines. Sales of the small Transit Connect van plunged 30.9 percent during the quarter to 6,960 vehicles.
Other manufacturers also saw a slowdown in small commercial van sales. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said sales of its ProMaster City van dropped 27 percent from the same period a year earlier to 3,333 vehicles. Sales of the Nissan NV200 slid 16 percent to 4,495 for the quarter.
Automakers, however, remain upbeat.
“The economy is strong and we see more growth ahead for our brands,” said Kurt McNeil, U.S. vice president of sales operations for GM. “More people are working, consumer confidence is at a 16-year high, fuel prices are low.”
IHS Markit forecasts total light vehicles U.S. sales of 17.4 million this year, a slight dip from the record 17.6 million in 2016.
“Automakers with fresh utility vehicles continue to be rewarded, while car sales continue to struggle,” said Stephanie Brinley, an IHS analyst.
The light truck segment of the market, which includes pickups, SUVs and crossovers, continues to grow and accounted for 61.8 percent of those sales in the quarter. That compares with 57.4 percent in the same period a year earlier.
Sales of passenger sedans could likely erode as the year continues as many new or refreshed crossovers and SUVs reach the market, including Chevrolet Equinox, Toyota C-HR, Nissan Rogue Sport, Mazda CX-5, GMC Terrain, Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Volkswagen’s Atlas and new Tiguan.
“These vehicles will continue to drive the story of increasing popularity of utility vehicles and maintain pressure on car sales,” Brinley said.