DETROIT — U.S. auto sales cooled off in May as dealers started running short on some popular, fuel-efficient models and buyers were turned off by sharply lower incentives.
Deals aren't likely to come back until the end of this summer. Some experts are advising people to delay their purchases if they can.
"If you don't have to buy, wait until fall. If you lease a car, extend it," said Edmunds.com chief Jeremy Anwyl.
Consumers heard that message in May. U.S. auto sales were expected to be around 1 million cars and trucks, down 8 percent from April and 4 percent from last May.
Meanwhile, Obama administration officials said Wednesday that the government will lose about $14 billion in taxpayer funds from the bailout of the U.S. auto industry, a third of the loss officials initially estimated.
In a report from the president's National Economic Council, officials said that figure is down from the 60 percent the Treasury Department originally estimated the government would lose following its $80 billion bailout of Chrysler and General Motors in 2009.
The report's release coincides with the administration's efforts to tout the bailout's role in the revitalization of the U.S. auto industry after last week's announcement that Chrysler is repaying $5.9 billion in U.S. loans and a $1.7 billion loan from the Canadian government.
As for sales, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., all of which ran short of models owing to parts shortages caused by the March 11 earthquake in Japan, had the biggest sales declines, with Toyota down 33 percent, Honda off 23 percent and Nissan off 9 percent compared with May of last year.
General Motors Corp.s sales dropped 1.2 percent, as falling pickup-truck sales offset strong sales of more fuel-efficient cars and crossovers. It was the same story at Ford Motor Co., which saw sales fall 2.4 percent for the month. Pickup sales dropped more than 10 percent at both companies.
Once again, small, compact and midsize car sales were up and truck sales were down because of high gas prices.
At Ford, where the F-Series pickup is traditionally the top-selling vehicle in the U.S., fuel economy clearly was driving sales. For the first time in decades, the company sold more F-150s with V6 engines (55 percent) than it did with larger V8s.
Despite a raft of bad economic data in the past few days, automakers generally said they were still optimistic for the year, with Ford and GM sticking with annual forecasts of around 13 million in U.S. sales. That's far short of the 2000 peak of 17.3 million, but better than the 10.4 million trough in 2009.
Ford even increased third-quarter production by 8 percent over last year, and its chief economist, Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, said there was good economic news with the bad, including moderating of gas prices, low interest rates and better availability of loans.
"We caution against reading too much into the monthly data," she said.
Don Johnson, GM's vice president of sales, said consumers are taking a wait-and-see approach as gas prices fluctuate around $4 per gallon. Construction remains weak, hurting truck sales.
Even so, Mr. Johnson thinks consumer confidence over the long term remains strong and sees pent-up demand among drivers who kept their vehicles longer than usual during the recession. He expects sales and incentive spending to rise toward the end of the summer.
"All things considered, we continue to believe the recovery remains on track," he said.