When it comes to contending for the global top spot in terms of new-vehicle sales, it's been a three-way fight between Volkswagen, General Motors (NYSE: GM), and Toyota Motors (NYSE: TM). That looks to continue this year, as well. So far, Volkswagen and General Motors have reported Q1 sales, while Toyota will report later this week.
Let's zoom in on General Motors' figures, how important these numbers are, and why we take them with a grain of salt.
By the numbers
Through the first quarter, General Motors sold 2.42 million vehicles worldwide, which put it behind German competitor Volkswagen's total sales of 2.49 million. GM's sales count will likely put it in third place behind Toyota, as well, considering that, last year, Toyota's first-quarter sales nearly hit 2.6 million. Here's a breakdown of how GM's regions trended during the first quarter.
As you can see, Europe and South America continue to be a large drag on GM's global sales, and were largely responsible for GM's global growth checking in at only 1.9% compared to last year's first quarter. For reference, Ford sold more than 335,000 vehicles in Europe in the first quarter, which was a 12.5% gain over last year.
Europe's overall industry checked in with a 9% gain -- a night-and-day difference from GM's results in the region. It should be noted, however, that part of the reason behind this was GM's decision to pull its Chevrolet brand out of Europe.
"The momentum our brands are building in China, the U.S. and Western Europe more than offset difficult conditions in some other large markets like Russia and Brazil," said GM CEO Mary Barra in a press release. "We are in the early days of a very aggressive onslaught of new products and customer-driven innovation," she continued.
To some extent, we should take these figures with a small grain of salt. An automaker could push extra shipments to dealers to increase its sales figure in the near term. Automakers also have another option, as James Healey of USA Today comically points out with an historic example:
And a company simply can lie. GM's Cadillac brand, it admitted later, did that in December 1998 so it could steal past archrival Ford Motor's Lincoln brand. Lincoln had prepared ads anticipating it would outsell Cadillac, and those had to be scrapped.
What should we look at?
While a surge in global sales would bode well for GM's first-quarter earnings results, what would really drive profits would be sales of full-size trucks and SUVs – both of which have been selling well for GM. Sales of GM's highly profitable Silverado and Sierra were up 17.6% and 7% through the first quarter compared to last year, with unit sales reaching more than 126,000 and 45,000, respectively.
Also, last month, GM's Chevrolet brand reported its best March for crossover sales. On top of very profitable vehicles selling well, GM's average transaction prices were nearly $35,000 through late February 2015, which was a $2,700 increase per unit compared to last year.
While GM's global sales checked in with a meager 1.9% gain, its first-quarter presentation should be more positive than that, with sales of highly profitable vehicles doing well, and strong pricing thus far in 2015.