U.S. monthly auto sales declined in September for the first time in more than two years, in part because of a calendar quirk that landed Labor Day weekend sales in the August report.
Auto information company TrueCar.com estimated that by the time all of the automakers report their results Tuesday, sales will have topped 1.1 million, about a 4% decline from September last year. Ford Motor Co. said the decline may be closer to 5%.
General Motors Co. said it sold 187,195 vehicles in the U.S. last month, an 11% decrease from the same month a year earlier.
However, Ford said its September sales totaled 185,146 vehicles, a 6% increase from a year earlier.
Chrysler Group also bucked the trend, reporting sales of 143,017 vehicles in September, a 1% increase compared with the same month a year earlier and the automaker's best September since 2007.
"Chrysler continues their momentum of strong sales even as the overall industry wasn't as strong," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "The Ram 1500 truck, along with the Dodge Durango and Dodge Dart, helped to improve September sales while the company is patiently waiting for the all-new Jeep Cherokee to hit showroom floors."
Toyota Motor Corp. reported September 2013 sales of 164,457 vehicles, a 4% decrease from its U.S. sales in the same month a year earlier.
"September was a solid month for the auto industry despite two fewer selling days," said Bill Fay, Toyota Division group vice president and general manager. "Industry fundamentals are strong as interest rates stay low and consumers remain confident."
Nissan Motor Co. said its sales fell almost 6% to 86,868 vehicles.
Sales of the Volkswagen's VW brand fell 12.2% to 31,920 vehicles last month.
The calendar left the industry with one less weekend to sell cars, and "certainly that had an impact on the numbers," said Mark McNabb, chief operating officer for Volkswagen of America.
The federal government shutdown, which started Tuesday, and the funding fight in Washington began to spook buyers at the end of the month.
"We started to hear from dealers in heavily [government-] dependent areas that traffic started to decline over the weekend. But it is certainly way too early to see what the impact is," McNabb said.
If August and September industry sales results are combined, the total for the two months should be about 7% higher than the same two months a year earlier, according to Elaine Kwei, an analyst with Jefferies, the investment banking firm.
However, the single-month decline in September snapped a 27-month streak of year-over-year gains dating back to June 2011, according to Edmunds.com, the car shopping information company.
That will make it look like sales "took a big hit in September," said Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell, but "the industry is still selling more cars per day than it did last year."
"Many of the fundamentals that have driven strong car sales over the last year are still in place, and we can expect them to contribute to a solid final quarter to close out 2013," Caldwell said.
Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Research, said that consumer demand "appears to remain robust, and we expect a strong finish to 2013." He expects full full-year sales to reach 15.6 million, the best since 2007 and that industry momentum will carry into 2014.
But TrueCar analyst said Jesse Toprak said the debate in Washington over the federal budget and debt ceiling is likely to cause consumers to think twice about purchasing big ticket items. The possibility of a government shutdown probably dampened demand for cars in the latter part of September and could affect October sales.
"We remain hopeful that the shutdown won't be very long," said Jenny Lin, Ford's chief economist.