Ford's numbers are the latest bad news as coronavirus crushes auto sales

Byron Hurd

We will continue to update this story as more automakers report their March and first-quarter sales results — keep checking back.

Global automotive sales tumbled in March in the wake of shelter-in-place orders, production halts and slowdowns, and economic turmoil as consumers worldwide began to take the full brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. 

March brought the end of the first sales quarter of 2020, and with it we are seeing the first reports from FCA, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen. 

Ford announced early Thursday that its Q1 sales declined 12.5 percent. Strong sellers in its core brand took hard hits, most notably its flagship F-Series, which declined 13.1% in Q1. It was the only full-size pickup line on the market to lose volume in the first quarter. 

The Blue Oval's best news came from Lincoln, which managed to finish the quarter up 2.3% thanks to the addition of the Aviator to the lineup. Without that volume, sales would have declined 20% compared to the same period a year ago. 

GM reported a volume decline of 7.1% in the first quarter. While the company did not share specifics, it hinted that the bulk of that decline was, unsurprisingly, due to the bottom falling out of retail sales in March. 

Despite the gloom, GM did have a few bright spots in its roster. Among them were the Chevy Bolt EV (up 36.1%), and the Chevy Trax (up 14.9%).

Chevrolet also saw an influx of volume from its new midsize Blazer, which was not fully ramped up in the first quarter of 2019. Somewhat surprisingly, the Chevy Malibu (up 3.2%) and Chevy Spark (up a whopping 45.6%) were also bright spots in the GM lineup. 

The real winners in GM's stable, however, were its full-size Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra lines, which were up nearly a whopping 28% combined. With more than 144,000 units sold in Q1, the Silverado has once again overtaken the Ram as the second-best-selling pickup nameplate in the United States, and GM's combined full-size pickup sales now outpace Ford's again for the first time since the Great Recession. 

Despite this, FCA's best news still came from its Ram lineup, where its flagship pickup managed to stay ahead of the sales decline. Even the Jeep brand took a hit; its sales would have been down more than 20% if not for help from the added volume of the Gladiator, which was sold only briefly in Q1 of 2019. 

All-in, FCA saw a 10% drop in sales compared to the first quarter of 2019. 

The company's remaining good news came from the Chrysler Pacifica minivan and the Dodge Durango midsize SUV, both of which managed a modest 5% increase over the first quarter of last year. 

Toyota took an almost-37% hit in March, setting it back nearly 9% for the year so far. RAV4 sales remained up by 16.5% for the quarter, but weren't immune to March's slip. 

Nissan, surprisingly, was more of a mixed bag. While the company's Q1 volumes were off a staggering 30% compared to 2019, representing a drop of 100,000 units, there were several highlights. Kicks (up 11.6%), Pathfinder (up 4.3%), and Murano were all up for the quarter, as was the Infiniti QX60 (16.4%).

Hyundai's U.S. sales alone dropped 43% compared to the same month a year ago, and more than 11% in the first quarter. 

Hyundai reported provisional global sales of 308,503 vehicles for March — a 21% slide to an 11 year-low for the month — as the outbreak battered demand and forced several of its overseas plants to suspend production.

Only Hyundai's Ioniq improved over its Q1 2019 sales, and only by approximately 200 units. 

The Korean automaker closed its Montgomery, Alabama, assembly plant last month after an employee there tested positive for the disease, and also suspended production at plants in the Czech Republic and India over the virus. Plants in South Korea are, however, running at close to full capacity.

Across the hall, sister brand Kia saw a March slide of approximately 18%, but managed to beat its 2019 Q1 by just a hair under 1%. The hot-selling Telluride crossover also outperformed its 2019 March sales, albeit barely.

Subaru, meanwhile, finally ended its long-running growth streak. The company saw a 47% volume drop in March, setting it back more than 16% for the year. 

Volkswagen reported a 13% slide for its core brand in Q1. Like Chevrolet, the brand had a couple of head-scratchers in its sales reports, including a big bump in outgoing Golf R sales (up nearly 450% to 789 for the quarter) and a more modest one from the discontinued Golf SportWagen (up 36%).

Porsche reported a similarly rough first quarter, perhaps indicating that luxury brands could be particularly sensitive to the current economic climate. Brand-wide sales were off 20% in Q1. The Panamera and Cayenne both saw 30% drops in volume, while the 718 Boxster and Cayman together slid nearly 40%. 

Mazda, which has had a rough go of it over the past few years, managed to only lose 4.5% of its Q1 sales volume compared to a year ago despite abysmal March numbers. Mazda3 and Mazda6 sales plummeted nearly 70% in a month where the company moved fewer than 16,000 units in the United States.

Mitsubishi took a hit in March as well, seeing a 52% drop in March volume, setting it back more than 15% for 2020. 

“Incoming reports point to automaker sales down anywhere between 30-40% for the month," said Chris Hopson, Manager of North America light vehicle sales forecast for the data strategy firm IHS Markit. "Like we’re seeing in other incoming economic data, most of the damage seems to be coming in the second half of the month, as state and municipal level “shelter in place” directives were rolled out.  This bodes poorly for sales in April and the downside risks to calendar-year 2020 sales volume remain prevalent, even with the USD2.5 trillion stimulus package.”

Reuters reports contributed to this story.