Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) said that its U.S. sales fell 4.9% in the third quarter from a year ago, as limited supplies of the all-new Explorer SUV more than offset good sales of several of Ford's other SUVs. Ford's sedan sales continued to decline in the quarter, while its truck sales remained strong.

Year to date through September, Ford's sales in the United States are down 3.5% from the same period in 2018.

A blue Ford Edge ST, a high-performance midsize crossover SUV.

The high-performance -- and high-profit -- Ford Edge ST sold well in the third quarter. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

How Ford fared against rivals

Here are the third-quarter sales results for the six largest-selling automakers in the U.S. market. Overall, U.S. light-vehicle sales were roughly flat in the third quarter versus the year-ago period, according to figures from Automotive News, meaning that Ford's 4.9% decline lagged the market's result.

Automaker U.S. Sales: Q3 2019 Change vs. Q3 2018
General Motors 738,638 6.3%
Ford 580,251 (4.9%)
Toyota Motor 627,194 (9.9%)
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles 565,034 0.1%
Honda Motor 429,214 2.4%
Nissan Motor 327,354 (4.8%)

Data sources: The automakers.

High and low points of Ford's third-quarter sales

The high points:

  • Ford's average transaction price rose about $2,000 from a year ago, to $37,900, as higher-priced SUVs and trucks made up a larger portion (87% vs. 82%) of its overall sales in the period. Ford's truck sales were up 8.8%, while its SUV sales fell 10.5% and its sales of cars fell 29.5% from the third quarter of 2018.
  • Ford is putting heavy emphasis on commercial-vehicle sales, and it's paying off. Sales of Ford's Transit family of commercial vans rose 21% from a year ago, to 65,288 -- a record.
  • Sales of Ford's big (and high-profit) Expedition SUV rose 47.7% to 18,586, a big gain for an important niche product. Sales of its upscale sibling, the (even-higher-profit) Lincoln Navigator, rose 9.4% to 4,345.
  • Ford's little EcoSport crossover SUV has struggled, but it had a nice quarter: Sales rose 10.7% to 16,271. The midsize Edge SUV also did well, with sales up 18.7% to 36,660.
  • Sales of Lincoln SUVs as a group rose 19.2% on strong results for the Navigator and the new midsize Nautilus. Ford has begun rolling out the all-new compact Lincoln Corsair, a replacement for the MKC.
A silver Ford Transit Connect, a compact commercial van.

Sales of Ford's small Transit Connect van jumped 49% in the third quarter. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

The low points:

  • Sales of Ford's full-size F-Series pickups, arguably its most important product, were 6% as newer trucks from General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE:FCAU) posted strong year-over-year gains. What's up? Ford's F-150 is still competitive, but it's now older than both of its key rivals, and some sales slippage isn't surprising. An all-new F-150 is expected next year.
  • Sales of Ford's car models continued to slide toward oblivion, down 31% from a year ago. The compact Focus and boxy C-Max are now sold out -- none were sold in the quarter -- and Ford is selling down the last examples of its discontinued full-size Taurus and small Fiesta. Of the group, only the Fusion and Mustang remain in production; sales were down 1% and 12.3%, respectively, from a year ago.
  • Ford-brand SUV sales were down 13.2% on a steep (48%) drop in sales of the Explorer.

Why Ford's all-new Explorer is dragging down sales

Ford said that U.S. sales of the popular Explorer SUV fell 48% in the third quarter from a year ago, to just 31,546 vehicles. That follows a steep decline in the second quarter, when Explorer sales were down 37.6% from the year-ago period. What's going on?

What's happening is that Ford is in the process of ramping up production of its all-new 2020 Explorer (and the related all-new Lincoln Aviator) while selling down the last of its 2019 models.

As of Sept. 1, Ford had roughly 40,000 Explorers (a mix of old and new) in its U.S. inventory, down from 62,000 a year prior. We don't have Oct. 1 inventory figures yet, but Ford said that it has now sold down the last of its 2019 models. (A few may remain at dealers, but they're mostly gone.)

There have been reports of some snags in Ford's production process after quality issues with some early production examples -- but Ford is sorting out those issues, and supplies of the new Explorer should rise quickly in the current quarter.

The upshot: All things considered, Ford is doing OK

It's an awkward moment for Ford's U.S. product portfolio. The company has discontinued most of its sedan models, but it has just begun rolling out the all-new SUVs that it expects will replace those lost sales. At the same time, FCA and GM are taking advantage of the fact that Ford's vaunted F-Series is now the oldest of the major full-size pickups -- and this is all happening against the backdrop of a U.S. light-vehicle market that might be running out of steam.

For Ford investors, I think the takeaway is that the company is doing fairly well under the circumstances, but we need to remember that the circumstances are a bit tough right now. We'll see how things look when Ford reports its third-quarter earnings on Oct. 23.