It's probably easier to list the industries that haven't been affected by the global computer chip shortage, but the automotive industry has been one of the most high-profile victims.

Manufacturers have idled factories, shut down production lines, laid off workers, and sales have plummeted. What had initially looked like a good year for car sales after last year's 14% drop is now turning into a rout.

Vehicle car lot

Image source: Getty Images.

Seasonally adjusted new car sales, which hit 18.5 million in April, have since fallen below 12.2 million at the end of September. While some analysts forecast full-year sales will recover to 15.5 million by the end of December, that would still be 1.2 million fewer cars sold than last year, for a 7% decline.

Yet as bad as last month's numbers were, they weren't bad across the board. There were some bright spots among the wreckage. Here are the three biggest losers and the two big winners from the third quarter.

General Motors (Q3 sales down 32.8%)

The biggest U.S. automaker, General Motors (NYSE:GM) suffered the worst decline of the major global automakers, with sales down 33% year-over-year. While its problems are not necessarily related to demand -- consumers actually want to buy new cars today, they just can't because carmakers can't produce vehicles due to the lack of computer chips -- GM's woes are particularly glaring, with sales 40% below those of the third quarter of 2019. It also shut down certain production lines for all of September, though all of its pickup truck and SUV plants are back online now.

Ford Mustang Mach-E

Image source: Ford.

Ford (down 27.4%)

Ford (NYSE:F) suffered the second-biggest drop in sales for the quarter, but its performance improved over the course of the three-month period and its sales in September beat analyst expectations and actually led the industry. Analysts believe Ford may have gotten a supply of chips in the month and was able to insert them into vehicles already built and put them on the market. Consumers apparently scooped them up immediately. Even so, Ford's F-series trucks, which are its main profit makers, have suffered through two straight quarters of declines, and have seen sales fall for five straight months.

Stellantis (down 19%)

Although Stellantis (NYSE:STLA) lost nearly one-fifth of the sales it generated in the third quarter of 2020, its decline wasn't as sharp as those of its rivals because new Jeep models showed up in showrooms just in time to minimize the impact of the chip situation. Even so, Jeep sales still fell 11% in the period, despite a 45% increase in the number of Grand Cherokee sales. The smaller Cherokee model, however, suffered a 72% plunge in sales as production facilities where the vehicle is made were shuttered. 

Toyota (up 1.4%)

Japanese automaker Toyota (NYSE:TM) enjoyed a 1.4% increase in sales in the third quarter, selling over 556,000 vehicles. That's more than GM sold in the period, and marks the second consecutive quarter it has beaten its rival, which puts it on track to surpass GM as the biggest automaker in the U.S. However, Toyota had a rough month in September, and sales tumbled 22%, which could represent a slowdown in the momentum it had been building despite the disruptions (GM no longer reports monthly vehicle sales). 

Tesla Model 3

Image source: Tesla.

Tesla (up 73.2%)

The biggest winner of this month was Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) -- the electric vehicle manufacturer blew away analyst estimates with a record 241,300 deliveries for the quarter, even though it was also beginning to feel the impact of the chip shortage. Virtually all of Tesla's sales were its newer Model 3 and the Model Y crossover vehicle, representing 95% of all deliveries. Deliveries were also higher sequentially, rising 20% above what it achieved in the second quarter.

Will EVs save the industry?

The strength of the electric vehicle market is evident in even Ford's lineup: The automaker reported a 92% increase in EV sales to a record 9,150 vehicles, with 5,880 Mustang Mach-E's sold in the period.

With a 9.2% increase in September, Ford notes it has cumulatively sold 18,885 Mach-E's, making it second only to Tesla's Model Y in full electric SUV sales. Ford also stated that reservations for its electric F-150 Lightning stand at 150,000, up from 100,000 in the second quarter.

Still, despite the upbeat tone of the EV market's results, it's going to take a lot more sales by major car manufacturers to offset the shortfall they've seen from gas-powered vehicles. EVs might help soften the blow, but won't completely deflect it. The chip shortage is going to sting a while longer.



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