After August Spike, U.S. Auto Sales Return to the New Normal

Last Updated Sep 2, 2009 8:27 AM EDT

With the end of Cash for Clunkers, U.S. auto sales for the rest of 2009 are expected to fall back to what's become the new "normal."

That is to say, the estimated seasonally adjusted annual sales rate is just over 10 million units for the fourth quarter, according to analysts for Ford and General Motors. That implies U.S. auto sales of around 10.5 million for all of 2009, the lowest level since the early 1980s.

The fourth-quarter estimate includes some payback, for "clunker" sales that were pulled forward into August.

Mike DiGiovanni, GM executive director of global and market industry analysis, said in a Sept. 1 conference call that the payback effect on new-vehicle sales may not be so bad, because many buyers who took advantage of Cash for Clunkers otherwise would have bought used vehicles.

Overall, U.S. auto sales in August were 1,261,977, an increase of 1 percent from the year-ago month, according to AutoData Corp.

That was the first year-ago sales improvement in 2009, and the first time in 12 months that U.S. auto sales topped 1 million. When monthly auto sales fell below 1 million in September 2008, it was the first time that had happened since 1993. Unfortunately, that's become almost routine in the last year.

Year to date after eight months, U.S. auto sales in 2009 were down 27.9 percent, to around 7.1 million.

Despite Cash for Clunkers, formally called the Car Allowance Rebate System, GM sales in August fell 19.9 percent from the year-ago month. Chrysler sales dropped 15.4 percent. Ford, which unlike GM and Chrysler managed to avoided bankruptcy earlier this year, gained 17 percent.

DiGiovanni said GM now expects 2010 U.S. auto sales in a range of 11.5 million to 12 million. "We're clearly seeing a strengthening in the economy," he said.

Chart: AutoData, Bnet Autos