DETROIT -- Auto sales this year are supposed to be the best since 2007, but they may have gotten off to a slow start in January.
Frigid temperatures and a barrage of snowstorms over much of the U.S. kept some buyers from showrooms. Some dealers felt the pinch from the cold shoulder.
"I'd say flat is a generous summation of the month," said Timothy "Bruce" Detweiler, dealer principal of a Buick-GMC dealer in Masontown, Pa., about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, where temperatures were near or below zero for several straight days. "When you go three days when no one comes on the lot, it's a little tough to be up to average."
Last year, U.S. sales rose 8 percent, or by 1.1 million vehicles, to 15.6 million. With old cars needing to be replaced, abundant low-interest financing and exciting new vehicle introductions, many analysts are predicting sales this year of more than 16 million -- a return to pre-recession levels. But the rate of growth is expected to slow a bit.
For January, most analysts are predicting sales at an annual rate of around 15.6 million, only a small increase from January of 2013. Most major automakers report sales numbers Monday.
Sales in January a year ago hit an annual rate of 15.2 million.
Last month, however, the Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell around 5 percent, enough to spook some buyers out of plunking down dollars on big-ticket items, said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for the Cars.com website. Since January of 2007, auto sales have followed the stock market up or down 74 percent of the time, Toprak said. Luxury buyers are even more sensitive to stock declines, so Toprak predicted slowing sales of higher-priced vehicles.
"It's based on how strongly you feel about the certainty of your wealth," he said. "Any kind of big dip in the stock market causes some hesitation."
Toprak predicts that Chrysler will post the biggest sales increase at 6.5 percent, followed by Nissan at 4.6 percent, Honda (HMC) at 4.5 and Hyundai/Kia with a 3.7 percent increase. But Ford (F) sales could be off 4.3 percent, Toyota (TM) down 3.2 and General Motors (GM) off by 1.8 percent from a year earlier.
Even if sales dropped in January, the fundamentals for strong auto sales this year remain in place, Toprak said, adding that he doesn't expect a bearish stock market for long.
Detweiler said his dealership won't be very far off its figures from January of 2013. And he's hoping those who didn't leave their homes during the string of frigid days will venture out and buy in February.
"Historically, a lot of times when they're stuck in the house, they end up researching cars," he said. "Sometimes we have a good month the next month because of really bad weather."