Auto sales down 3.5 percent in August, with one exception

Fiat Chrysler was only carmaker to report gain

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Auto sales fell about 3.5 percent in August, and some major automakers said a long-expected sales decline has begun or, at best, that sales have hit a plateau.

That may spark a shift to juicer customer incentives and slowed production.

The top three sellers, General Motors, Ford and Toyota on Thursday reported declines of at least 5 percent.

Of the seven top manufacturers by sales, only Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported a gain versus s year ago, when sales were restated to about 11,000 fewer than originally reported.

With only a few automakers left to report, sales were tacking near 17.0 million to 17.1 million vehicles on a seasonally adjusted annualized rate, versus a surprisingly strong 17.88 million vehicles in July.

Ford Chief Economist Bryan Bezold said sales have hit a plateau after steadily rising following the 2008-2009 recession. The auto industry outperformed the overall U.S. economy in those years largely due to pent-up demand that has now played out, he said.

In late July, Ford was the first major automaker to confirm the lofty sales gains achieved since 2010 were at an end, even though they are still about 65 percent higher than the lowest sales year in 2009.

Mark LaNeve, Ford’s U.S. sales chief, said on Thursday the company will ring up fewer sales in 2017 than this year. Results in 2016 are expected to fall short of last year’s record high sales of 17.47 million vehicles, according to Autodata Corp.

GM on Thursday forecast 2016 sales at 17.3 million vehicles.

Ford, whose sales tumbled 8.4 percent, said its U.S. inventory was at 81 days of supply versus 61 days a year earlier, suggesting Ford may have to cut production, increase incentives, or boost fleet sales.

“Now the automakers’ focus will shift from simple growth to market share and managing inventories,” said analyst Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book.

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