Nissan Leads Asian Brands’ U.S. Gains as Altima Tops Camry

Nissan Motor Co. led February U.S. sales gains for Asia-based carmakers, with its Altima passing Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry so far this year amid severe winter weather that again was blamed for chilling demand.

Monthly sales at Nissan rose 16 percent from a year earlier, topping the 12 percent average of six analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Subaru had a 24 percent increase, sustaining its 2013 lead as the fastest-growing Asian brand. Sales slid 4.3 percent for Toyota and 7 percent for Honda Motor Co., as both missed estimates.

Snow and ice storms in parts of the U.S. “certainly had an impact on auto sales in February,” Bill Fay, a Toyota U.S. group vice president, said on a conference call yesterday. “It’s not only affecting consumers. We’ve had some disruptions in production and rail service.”

Nissan’s U.S. growth of 14 percent this year through February contrasts with declines of 5.7 percent for Toyota and 4.8 percent for Honda, which both typically outsell the Yokohama, Japan-based carmaker. Should Altima stay ahead of Camry for all of 2014, it would be a blow to the Toyota model that’s been the top-selling U.S. car for 12 years in a row.

“Nissan sales have risen a lot this year, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are doing an exceptionally good job,” said Koji Endo, senior analyst at Advanced Research Japan in Tokyo. “Their last year sales were extremely depressed.”

U.S. Sales

Total U.S. new car and truck sales last month reached 1.2 million, little changed from a year earlier. The annualized pace, adjusted for seasonal trends, was 15.3 million, matching February 2013, according to researcher Autodata Corp. Combined sales for Japanese and South Korean brands gained 0.4 percent to 530,587, as Nissan and Subaru overcame declines for the region’s other automakers.

Nissan’s shares rose 0.4 percent as of 10:54 a.m. in Tokyo trading. Toyota gained 1 percent and Honda climbed 0.5 percent. The benchmark Nikkei 225 Stock Average advanced 0.6 percent.

Nissan’s deliveries, including its Infiniti luxury brand, rose to 115,360 last month from 99,636, according to a statement yesterday. Rogue sport-utility vehicles sales rose 73 percent to 17,197 while Nissan-brand trucks climbed a combined 33 percent.

Passing Honda

The gains allowed Nissan to pass Honda in U.S. sales this year through February.

“Our entire Nissan team of employees and dealers is focused on growing our sales and share profitably, and we intend to continue executing according to this strategy going forward,” Fred Diaz, the company’s senior vice president for U.S. sales, said by e-mail. “This is an intensely competitive industry so we never take our performance for granted.”

Altima, Nissan’s top seller, rose 11 percent to 30,849 in February, for a total this year of 53,364, the company said. Toyota’s Camry sales fell 7.3 percent to 28,998 last month, for a year-to-date total of 52,330.

Camry’s decline reflects a general slowdown for mid-size cars, which were down 15 percent in January and “it looks like that kind of trend continued into February,” Fay said. “It looked like Nissan was a lot more active with some of their incentive and fleet activity,” he said, without elaborating.

The average Altima price dipped about $1,000 from a year earlier, said Alec Gutierrez, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, an industry price and data company in Irvine, California., a Santa Monica, California-based pricing and data provider, estimated that Nissan’s average transaction price was $26,875 in February, falling from $27,895.

“If the Altima wasn’t a good car, it wouldn’t even be in contention,” Gutierrez said. “Consumers have so many solid options in the mid-size sedan segment and to rise to the top you have to be a little more willing to dip into incentives or the fleet mix.”

Diaz said in a phone interview that Nissan made no significant changes to its incentives in February.

Nissan’s February market share rose to 9.7 percent from 8.3 percent a year earlier, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata.

Toyota Decline

Toyota sold 159,284 Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles last month, down from 166,377 a year earlier. The Toyota brand fell 5.8 percent, while Lexus luxury sales grew 8.7 percent, the Toyota City, Japan-based company said in a statement. The total percentage decline was wider than the 2.5 percent average of six analyst estimates.

Heavy snowfall during the month disrupted the production and shipping of the Corolla small car, RAV4 compact crossover and Lexus RX sport-utility vehicle, Fay said on a call.

Even with Toyota’s declines in January and February, “we’re still very optimistic for a successful year,” he said.

Toyota’s market share slipped to 13.3 percent from 13.9 percent, according to Autodata.

Honda, Subaru

Honda sales including its Acura luxury brand fell to 100,405 from 107,987 a year earlier. Its 7 percent drop was worse than all six estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Those projections, from a decline of 4 percent to a gain of 2 percent, averaged a 0.3 percent increase for the Tokyo-based company.

Subaru sold 34,909 of its mainly all-wheel-drive cars and crossovers, up from 28,163, Tokyo-based Fuji Heavy said.

Combined deliveries for Hyundai Motor Co. and affiliate Kia Motors Corp. fell 3.8 percent in February. Hyundai reported selling 49,003 vehicles, down 6.3 percent. Kia, based in Seoul, said its sales slid 0.7 percent to 41,218.

“I don’t like to make excuses, but the awful weather we saw across the country really hurt traffic to our dealerships and ultimately kept our sales at a pace well below what we were expecting,” Bob Pradzinski, vice president of sales for Seoul-based Hyundai’s U.S. unit, said in a statement yesterday.

Among other automakers, Mazda Motor Corp. said its sales fell 2.4 percent and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. reported a decline of 1.2 percent.

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