By Deepa Seetharaman, Bernie Woodall and Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. consumer demand for new vehicles cooled slightly in September, as expected, as Ford Motor Co
The annual auto sales rate was 15.28 million vehicles, the slowest since April and down considerably from 16.09 million in August, but close to what many analysts expected. Overall U.S. auto sales fell 4.2 percent in September to 1.14 million vehicles, according to industry research firm Autodata.
This marked the industry's first year-on-year sales decline in more than two years. There were two fewer shopping days in September compared with the previous year, and part of the Labor Day shopping weekend fell in August.
One question looming over the U.S. auto industry as it heads into the final quarter of the year is the potential impact of the federal government shutdown on October car sales.
Analysts and executives expressed confidence that auto sales would be able to weather the impact of a short-term shutdown of the federal government. GM and Ford economists pointed to the minimal impact of the debt ceiling debate on auto sales in mid-2011, when the U.S. economy was weaker.
"As long as the underlying economic factors are supporting the business, which we think they will through the end of the year and through 2014, we'll get through this turbulence," said Ken Czubay, Ford's U.S. marketing vice president.
Ford's U.S. dealers, bolstered by strong pickup sales, delivered 185,186 vehicles in September, up 5.8 percent from the previous year and narrowing the gap with industry leader GM to a slim 2,000 vehicles last month.
GM, whose September sales dropped 11 percent to 187,195, said that its dealers had a limited supply of full-size pickup trucks. The automaker continued to add new versions of the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra while selling down stocks of the 2013 models.
Silverado sales in September fell 10.8 percent. Its rival, the best-selling Ford F-Series, rose 9.8 percent.
GM said lower retail incentives and fleet sales contributed to its sales decline in September.
Among the other major automakers reporting on Tuesday, Chrysler Group LLC beat analysts' expectations in September, while Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>, Honda Motor Co <7267.T>, Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> and Hyundai Motor Co <005380.KS> missed.
Chrysler, an affiliate of Italy's Fiat SpA
Toyota's sales dropped 4.3 percent to 164,457, Honda's declined 9.9 percent to 105,563, Nissan's fell 5.5 percent to 86,868 and combined Hyundai-Kia sales dipped 13.9 percent to 93,105. All four companies fell short of analysts' expectations.
Graphic-U.S. auto sales http://link.reuters.com/kad22v
September U.S. light vehicle sales by major automakers
"We see the momentum continuing, certainly not at the breakneck pace we've seen over the last couple of months," said Alex Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. "But we believe that our forecast for the year, which calls for 15.6 million units, is still definitely on the table."
Sales by brand, even at Ford and Chrysler, were mixed.
Chrysler's Dodge, Chrysler and Ram brands all reported modest increases in September. Jeep sales fell 5 percent as Chrysler struggled to get the all-new 2014 Cherokee to dealers. Fiat brand sales plunged 24 percent, the first year-to-year decline in 18 months.
Sales of Ford brand vehicles rose 6.3 percent, while Lincoln sales fell 5.1 percent.
Ford said it posted the best September sales since 2006. Chrysler's September sales were its best since 2007.
GM's Cadillac and Buick brands were up in September, while Chevrolet and GMC fell, partly the result of declining truck sales.
Hyundai brand sales were down 8 percent at 55,102. Kia sales plunged 21 percent to 38,003.
BMW group sales, including those for the Mini brand, rose 8.3 percent to 28,874. Mercedes-Benz group sales, including those for the Smart brand, climbed 5.8 percent to 27,474.
Most premium brands reported robust sales of luxury vehicles in September. The top three premium German brands - BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi - all posted increases, as did Cadillac. But Toyota's Lexus brand fell 4.2 percent.
Sales of electric and hybrid vehicles, as with vehicles in other sectors, were mixed. GM's Chevrolet Volt slid 38.1 percent, to 1,766. It was outsold by the Nissan Leaf, which jumped 98.5 percent to 1,953 vehicles. Both models received significant price cuts earlier this year, but each is still averaging fewer than 2,000 sales per month.
Auto analysts remained mostly upbeat on the fourth-quarter outlook.
"Consumer confidence is relatively high, unemployment ticked down to 7.3 percent in August, and we continue to see increases in home prices and construction activity," Jefferies analyst Elaine Kwei said in a research note.
Barclays analyst Brian Johnson called the expected September sales decline "nothing more than noise."
Average transaction prices for new cars and trucks continued to rise, hitting a record $31,854 in September, according to researcher TrueCar. Prices rose $602 from August as automakers sent more 2014 models to dealers and reduced incentives on leftover 2013 models, TrueCar said.
GM shares closed 0.2 percent lower at $35.91 and Ford shares ended 1.9 percent higher at $17.19 on Tuesday on the New York Stock Exchange.
(Writing by Paul Lienert; editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Maureen Bavdek and Matthew Lewis)