The entire automotive sector is struggling in the grip of the great 2021 chip shortage, and Subaru (OTC:FUJHY), which just reported its September sales results, is no exception. Sales plummeted 30% year over year last month.

But one significant fact mentioned in its latest report could be the key to an even stronger-than-expected rebound once the chip shortage eases. Customer response to its new Wilderness models is very positive, and that matches up well with current consumer trends.

A family sitting in the back of their SUV while camping on a hill overlooking the ocean.

Image source: Getty Images.

How Subaru is performing to date

Subaru's automobile deliveries since June give a snapshot of the chip shortage's effects. In June, the shortage was starting to affect inventory, with a 20.35% sales drop year over year. But reported sales for the second quarter provided at the same time still showed a 20.3% rise from a year ago, with the shortage's full impact just beginning.

A July respite followed, with only a 2.6% sales decline. The Outback sold the largest number of vehicles, with sales increasing 15.6% year over year to 14,058 units, while the Crosstrek came close with a 50.4% surge to 13,402. The senior vice president for sales of Subaru of America, Jeff Walters, said "buyers continue to show excitement for our standout SUV lineup, with the Crosstrek, Outback, and Forester continuing to perform well."

August saw units sold slump by 15%, with the Forester and Outback losing ground and only the Crosstrek among the company's SUVs still showing a year-over-year increase.

And in September's report, sales plunged 30% year over year. The drop might be exaggerated, however, because September 2020 saw an all-time record for unit sales. On the positive side, Subaru's sales for the first nine months of 2021 are still 6% higher overall than during the same period in 2020. Demand is clearly growing strongly, and it is only the lack of inventory, not a failure of consumer interest, causing the decline year over year in monthly deliveries.

A big potential boost for the company's future sales

The chip shortage is slamming the brakes on Subaru's sales for now. Uncertainty about the shortage's duration is high, and even chip industry figures provide vastly different estimates on when matters will improve. CNBC reports that the CEO of Advanced Micro Devices (NASDAQ:AMD), Lisa Su, predicted at a conference that chip supply will remain "tight" through 2022's first half, but then ease.

She based this on the fact chipmakers started building new factory capacity a year ago, and a typical factory takes around a year and a half from breaking ground to become operational, though two years is also possible. On the pessimistic side, CEO Matt Murphy of Marvell Technology (NASDAQ:MRVL) thinks there "is going to be a very painful period, including in 2022 for the duration of the year," and more capacity won't be available until 2023 or 2024.

A Subaru Forester Wilderness is parked out in the woods with a pop-up tent open on its roof and a roof in the foreground.

The Subaru Forester Wilderness model. Image source: Subaru.

Once conditions improve, though, a significant opportunity awaits Subaru, assuming current consumer trends continue. It's already positioned for this prospective sales surge. As noted in the monthly sales described above, demand for Subaru's SUV models, the Forester, the Outback, and the Crosstrek, is already high. Importantly, Walters highlighted in the September sales report how Subaru has just introduced the new Outback Wilderness and Forester Wilderness, which "continue to impress car buyers looking for enhanced off-road capabilities and trail-tested confidence."

These sales indications and product launches mesh perfectly with the ongoing surge in Americans' interest in outdoor activities. The pandemic's early months saw closures, lockdowns, and social distancing make most usual entertainment venues inaccessible, sparking an American exodus to the great outdoors. Multiple sectors are benefiting, including golf equipment suppliers; outdoor clothing brands; and sellers of mowers, tillers, and lawn tractors. Most visibly, recreational vehicle manufacturers like Thor Industries (NYSE:THO) are selling record numbers of RVs, many of them high-end and high margin, to a growing swarm of campers.

As the bellwether of outdoor vehicle and equipment sales, the RV industry is indicating the outdoor craze is likely to extend through 2022, at a minimum. The RV Industry Association forecasts at least 600,000 units sold in 2022, higher than 2021's record-setting sales, and perhaps even more than 614,000 units at the high estimate. This figure takes chip shortages into account and would probably be higher without them. The new interest in the outdoors isn't likely to go away.

With demand for its SUV line already strong, the new Wilderness variants of its Forester and Outback with enhanced off-road capabilities just rolling out, and a dynamic outdoor and off-roading consumer trend in full swing, Subaru has all the makings of a sales surge lined up. All that's needed is an easing of the chip shortage, and the company is likely not only to rebound but also to rocket to new highs. Everything is pointing to the company being one of the more bullish automotive stocks once the chip recovery begins. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.