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Declining U.S. market ratchets up competition for SUV sales

By Nick Carey and David Shepardson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Falling U.S. new vehicle sales through the rest of 2019 and into 2020 will bring more intense competition in the increasingly crowded market for SUVs and a continued decline in passenger car sales, executives and economists said at this week's auto show in New York.

"There are more and more SUVs coming to market and I continue to see that market growing," said Fred Diaz, U.S. chief executive of Japanese automaker Mitsubishi Motors Corp. "It's hyper competitive."

The new SUVs at this week's auto show included models from Toyota Motor Corp, Ford Motor Co, Subaru Corp, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai Motor Co.

After a long bull run, U.S. auto sales are expected to fall about 3 percent to 16.8 million units. That is still a respectable number, but the decline will increase competition for market share.

Much of the decrease will be driven by falling sedan sales. As recently as 2012, passenger cars made up more than 50 percent of U.S. new vehicle sales. But that number has dropped rapidly as American consumers have sought the greater comfort and space provided by larger pickup trucks and SUVs.

While those bigger vehicles are far more profitable for automakers, increased competition could lead to higher incentives in that segment that could squeeze profit margins just like with sedans over the years, industry officials said.

Executives also cited slowly climbing auto interest rates and the rising cost of new vehicles. Honda Senior Vice President Henio Arcangeli said uncertainty about the revised U.S. tax code also had an impact on sales.

In the first quarter, cars made up just over 30 percent of new vehicle sales.

Bob Carter, head of U.S. sales at Toyota, said the industry-wide passenger car market share could still fall slightly before hitting a bottom.

But for SUVs, the market has continued to grow and may see slight growth in 2019. That has automakers pushing out new SUVs to fight for sales.

According to data from automotive consultancy LMC Automotive, by the year 2023 there will be 90 mainstream SUV and crossover models on the U.S. market, as well as 90 luxury models. Those numbers compare with 2017 levels of 65 mainstream SUV and crossover models and 53 luxury models.

Patrick Manzi, senior economist at the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), said the growing competition favors those automakers bringing fresh vehicles to the market to grab consumers' attention.

"If you don't have the newest, hottest product, you're going to have to stand out somehow," he said.

One way to stand out with an older vehicle is to offer steeper discounts to potential buyers, Manzi added.

At the show, Ford's luxury Lincoln brand launched a new SUV, the Corsair, which chief marketing officer Joy Falotico said had turned out to be "lucky timing."

Lincoln sales rose 11.2 percent in the first quarter, driven by SUV sales even as Ford brand sales fell 2.2 percent.

"I am confident that sales trend will continue," Falotico said.

Despite falling sedan sales, executives at Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Toyota said they remain committed to the segment.

Toyota's Carter noted Americans still bought 5.3 million sedans in 2018.

"So maybe it drops another 10 percent, it’s still 4.8 million units and I care desperately about that market," he said. "We're absolutely committed to the truck and SUV market. But we're as equally committed to the car market."


(Reporting by Nick Carey and David Shepardson; editing by Dan Grebler)