By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. car and light truck sales slipped 1.8 percent in January as automakers pulled back on bulk sales to rental, government and business fleets and concentrated on more profitable retail sales to individual consumers.
Fleet sales, particularly those to rental agencies, are skewed toward passenger cars, which are falling out of favor as consumers shift to sport utility vehicles and trucks.
"It is the year for trucks and crossovers (SUVs). That's what it's all about," said Judy Wheeler, head of U.S. sales for the Nissan <7201.T> brand. Nissan's Rogue SUV continued to be its top seller as sales soared 45.5 percent in January.
Autodata Corp showed that 62.6 percent of January U.S. sales were of SUVs and trucks, up from 58.2 percent a year ago.
January sales fell 1.8 percent to 1.14 million vehicles, or a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 17.61 million vehicles, down from 17.9 million vehicles a year earlier, according to Autodata. The annualized rate was roughly in line with the forecast of 17.55 million in a poll of 40 economists by Thomson Reuters.
Industry executives are optimistic that sales could hit another record in 2017, with a boost from pro-growth economic and regulatory policies expected from President Donald Trump. Many forecasters had earlier predicted a decline in U.S. vehicle sales this year.
Even with U.S. consumer confidence falling in January, households remained upbeat about the labor market, suggesting the economy would continue to grow this year.
General Motors Co (GM.N) posted a 3.8 percent decline in January sales from a year ago, while crosstown rival Ford Motor Co (F.N) said overall sales slipped by 0.6 percent.
Ford's high-margin F-Series pickup truck sales jumped by 12.5 percent, but passenger cars sales dropped 17.5 percent.
Honda Motor Co Ltd <7267.T> and Nissan Motor Co Ltd <7201.T> both had sales gains of 6 percent in January, but Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> reported a surprising drop of 11 percent.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCHA.MI)(FCAU.N) said January sales slid 11 percent, reflecting a cut in deliveries to fleets. Sales of its Jeep brand of sport utilities fell 7 percent.
Still, the latest results highlighted the accelerating shift in consumer demand toward SUVs. Three Japanese-brand compact utility vehicles, the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV 4, each handily outsold last year's best-selling car, the Toyota Camry.
Automakers have been scrambling to ramp up capacity to build more SUVs, even as they cut production at car plants.
Some analysts cautioned against reading too much into January's results. December's surprisingly good showing pulled sales from January, normally the weakest month of the year in terms of sales volume, analysts said.
December consumer confidence reached its strongest in 15 years.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Tom Brown)