By Ryan Felton
U.S. auto-industry sales, beaten down through much of the pandemic, are starting to rebound as buyers see something they haven’t in a long time: more cars and trucks on dealership lots.
In a reversal from last year, many car companies reported higher U.S. sales in the first quarter, with some manufacturers, such as General Motors Co. GM -0.39%decrease; red down pointing triangle and Hyundai Motor Co., HYMLY 0.00%increase; green up pointing triangle posting double-digit gains.
Inventory levels, which had been constrained in recent years due to supply-chain snarls, are rising and helping to lift sales as dealers work to satisfy the pent-up demand that has accumulated.
Industry wide, U.S. auto sales are expected to hit 3.5 million for the first three months of this year, a 6% rise over the previous first-quarter period, according to estimates provided by J.D. Power, an industry research firm.
The quarterly increase in new-car sales follows a difficult year in 2022, when the auto industry as a whole posted its worst annual performance in more than a decade.
The dismal results were largely driven by continuing supply-chain problems and difficulties keeping factories running flat out, leaving dealers with little to sell and consumers paying top dollar to secure what was available.
The industry also is rebounding from a troubled start to 2022, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked troubles across the auto-industry supply chain and a scarcity of computer chips wreaked havoc on companies’ ability to build vehicles.
GM said its U.S. sales jumped nearly 17.6 percent in the first quarter, helped along by strong pickup-truck demand and an increase in sales to fleet customers.
Hyundai reported a 16 percent increase in its U.S. sales for the January-to-March period, attributing the rise in part to higher demand for its fully electric and hybrid models.
Some car companies, however, are still confronting challenges, a sign that the year ahead could be a bumpy one.
Stellantis STLA -0.62%decrease; red down pointing triangle NV, the owner of Jeep, Ram, Chrysler and other automotive brands, said its U.S. sales dropped 9 percent in the first quarter. Toyota Motor Corp. TM 0.45%increase; green up pointing triangle also reported a nearly 9% decline for the period, attributing the decrease to continued supply-chain troubles and tight inventory.
Jack Hollis, Toyota Motor’s North American sales chief, said last week he expected the period to be slow but sales would pick up again in the back half of the year.
“Our situation is improving,” he said. “The problem is our dealerships are just selling them faster than we’re producing them.”
Auto executives have said that some of those supply-side obstacles have been easing, particularly on semiconductors, with factory production schedules becoming more stabilized.
Overall, the available stock at dealerships and in transit was 1.85 million units at the end of March, up roughly 50% from at the month’s end a year ago, according to Wards Intelligence, an industry data-analytics firm.
That figure, however, is still well below the historic norm, and dealers expect it could be a while before availability fully returns because many vehicles that hit lots are already pre-ordered.
“We are really starting to see some positive inroads, and the inventory is definitely improving,” said Judy Wheeler, Nissan’s vice president of U.S. sales.