Cox Automotive Forecast: An Upside Surprise Expected for U.S. Auto Sales in Q1 2023

Staff Report

Thursday, March 30th, 2023

Cox Automotive, the world's largest automotive services and technology provider, forecasts new-vehicle sales volume in Q1 will increase by nearly 6% year over year, reaching 3.5 million units. Sales volume in March, the final month of Q1, is expected to be near 1.30 million, an increase of 2.6% from March 2022. Through Q1, the seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) is forecast at 15.0 million, an increase of more than 6% compared to the 14.1 million SAAR in the first quarter of 2022.

A key driver of the increased sales is the vastly improved new-vehicle inventory level, which is up roughly 70% from the volume recorded in the early months of 2022. Sales in Q1 were also helped by a notable increase in fleet activity. Fleet sales in January were up 58% year-over-year. In February, fleet sales increased by 48%. A similar increase is expected in March.

Cox Automotive forecasts new-vehicle sales volume in the U.S. to increase by nearly 6% year over year in Q1.

"The stronger start to 2023 has led us to make positive revisions to our vehicle sales forecasts, but we continue to believe supply constraints and affordability issues will put a ceiling on what's possible in the year ahead," noted Cox Automotive Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke. "With the job market still strong, the largest demand problem for automotive in 2023 will be rising interest rates that push many would-be buyers out of the market."

Tesla Grabs More Share; GM Remains On Top

General Motors will finish Q1 as the No. 1 seller of new vehicles in the U.S. A year ago, Toyota was on top. Thanks mostly to improved inventory levels, Cox Automotive is forecasting GM sales to increase more than 15% year over year and reach 587,000 units. Sales, however, will be down from Q4 2022, when GM's volume hit 618,692.

Tesla, which lowered prices in the first quarter to spark demand, is forecast to post solid sales gains and surpass market share of 5% for the first time. Tesla sales in Q1 are expected to reach 180,000, a record quarter for the company in the U.S. and a gain of nearly 40% from Q1 2022. Tesla will be the top luxury-vehicle seller in the U.S. in Q1, by far, with sales more than double that of BMW or Mercedes.

Cox Automotive Increases Full-Year Outlook After Strong Start in 2023

After a stronger-than-expected start to 2023, Cox Automotive is adjusting its full-year new-vehicle sales forecast to 14.2 million, an increase of nearly 3% from 2022. While new-vehicle inventory is expected to improve through the year, elevated prices and average auto loan rates above 8% are expected to hold back new-vehicle sales. In Q1, the typical new-vehicle loan payment was more than $750 a month, an amount out of reach for many households.

"The Q1 result is surprisingly strong given all the bad economic news," said Charlie Chesbough, senior economist at Cox Automotive. "But we expect the upside market experienced in Q1 won't last throughout the year. In fact, sales volume in Q1 will be down 3% from last quarter, suggesting that market headwinds are growing. Inventory levels at some automakers are moving back up above pre-pandemic normal, suggesting that overall demand has slowed in some corners of the market."

Fleet sales for the full year of 2023 are forecast at 2.2 million, up 23% from 2022, when 1.8 million units were sold to commercial buyers.

March 2023 Sales Forecast Highlights

The annual sales pace in March is expected to finish near 14.1 million, up 0.5 million from last March's 13.6 million pace but down from February's 14.9 million level.
Sales volume is expected to rise 2.6% from one year ago and reach 1.3 million units.
There are 27 selling days in March 2023, equal to March 2022.