May auto sales registered a modest year-over-year drop of 0.6 percent, but in a more troubling trend, it marked the fifth consecutive month of declining 2017 car sales.
In a surprise performance, Ford took the top spot from rival General Motors with a year-over-year sales increase of 2 percent, as GM saw a drop of 1 percent last month. Nissan had the largest increase among major automakers, with sales that were up by 3 percent. Honda saw sales grow by 1 percent. Hyundai/Kia experienced the biggest drop, at 12 percent, while Fiat Chrysler fell off by 1 percent. Toyota remained flat compared to 2016.
The best-selling car last month was the Honda Accord, with 33,547 unit sales, and the top-selling truck was the perennial favorite Ford F-150, which posted sales of 71,285 units.
As previously reported by Edmunds, May sales results were expected to be heavily dependent on dealer traffic over the Memorial Day weekend. And, indeed, holiday sales appear to have had a significant impact on the final monthly tally, although special incentives likely played a major role in reducing the decline.
"While demand for new vehicles is still relatively strong, it's a bit of smoke and mirrors," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis for Edmunds. "Dealers and OEMs really pushed the deals over the holiday weekend to prop up their May numbers."
Incentives were up sharply, and it seems automakers were putting more cash on the hood to nudge car shoppers to buy rather than lease. Financing incentives were up 33 percent year over year in May, compared to a 28 percent rise in lease incentives and an 18 percent lift in cash incentives.
Bright spots for the industry included light trucks and green vehicles. Year-over-year sales of all light trucks (pickups, vans and SUVs) increased 3 percent last month, while hybrid and electric cars reached their highest sales levels of the year. Overall, green vehicles have captured market share of 3 percent in every month of 2017. That's something their manufacturers were unable to achieve in all of 2016.