But Chrysler, Nissan and Subaru dealers were smiling. Sales ran counter to the thermometer and were up for all three brands.
January is usually a snow month for auto sales, but the polar vortex likely slowed things even more. Industry analysts predicted little or no sales gains in January compared with a year ago. Ford said the industry saw double-digit sales gains in the West, where the weather was good, but big declines in other regions.
Dealers saw the impact firsthand.
"When you go three days when no one comes on the lot, it's a little tough to be up to average," said Timothy "Bruce" Detweiler, dealer principal of a Buick-GMC dealer in Masontown, Pa., about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh. Temperatures there were near or below zero for several straight days.
GM said its sales dropped 12 percent compared with the same month a year earlier, while Ford and Toyota each were down 7 percent. Volkswagen slumped 19 percent.
But Chrysler's U.S. sales advanced 8 percent, while Nissan's rose nearly 12 percent. Subaru saw a 19 percent increase.
All three automakers were boosted by new vehicles. Chrysler notched its best January in six years, with Jeep brand sales up 38 percent on the strength of the new Cherokee small SUVs. Nissan sales gained 11.8 percent, led by the redesigned Rogue small crossover SUV with sales up 55 percent. And sales of Subaru's redesigned Forester SUV jumped 64 percent over last January.
GM predicted an industrywide annual selling rate of 15.3 million for the month, just a touch above the 15.2 million rate January 2013. Sales of most of its high-volume models were down. The Chevy Silverado pickup, GM's top-selling vehicle, saw sales shrink by more than 18 percent.
But like many analysts, GM remained optimistic for the year, predicting total U.S. sales in a range from 16 million to 16.5 million. That's back to pre-recession levels and better than last year's 15.6 million.
Ford blamed the weather for its sales decline. Sales of the Ford Focus small car plunged 26 percent from last January, while sales of the F-Series pickup were flat. Ford's Lincoln luxury brand was the bright spot, with a 43 percent increase. Sales of the Lincoln MKZ sedan, which went on sale last spring, more than quadrupled over last January's anemic levels.
The company said the repeated winter storms and subzero temperatures disrupted deliveries to rental car companies and other fleet buyers.
Toyota also blamed the weather for its drop, but its results were also impacted by a safety issue. Last Thursday, Toyota told North American dealers to stop selling six popular models with heated seats because the fabric doesn't comply with U.S. safety codes and could catch fire. The order affected 36,000 cars, trucks and minivans, about 13 percent of the inventory at U.S. dealers. The order covered certain Camry, Avalon, Sienna and Tacoma models with heated seats from the 2013 and 2014 model years, as well as some Corollas and Tundras from 2014. No fires or injuries have been reported.
Detweiler is hoping that those who didn't leave their homes during the streak of bad weather will venture out and buy in February.
"Historically, a lot of times when they're stuck in the house, they end up researching cars," he said. "Sometimes we have a good month the next month because of really bad weather."