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Published: Monday, 1/14/2013

Ties to Chrysler, Jeep help fuel 2012 rebound, area car dealers say

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Following national trends, local consumers bought more new cars — and spent more on them — in 2012 than they have in recent years.

Figures from the Lucas County Clerk of Courts office show new car sales rose 8.3 percent last year to 22,777. That’s the highest total since 2008, when the county registered 23,557 new cars.

Though local auto sales didn’t quite keep pace with the national surge of a 13 percent gain, 2012 was still the best local improvement in auto sales since the depth of the recession.

Car buyers also spent more on average for their purchases. Data from the Lucas County Clerk of Courts show an average pretax transaction price of $31,031 last year.

That’s up 5.6 percent from 2011 and up 8.7 percent from 2010.

Several things contributed to the rise. Banks are more willing to lend, the average age of cars on the road today remains the highest ever, and automakers have made huge leaps in packing new cars with technology and coaxing better fuel economy from them.

John Yark, owner of Yark Automotive Group, credits all those points.

“There is a big difference between a 2013 and what you’d have on a 2008 or older,” he said. “It’s incredible the changes in the vehicles in so many levels.”

Yark Automotive posted its highest volume ever in 2012, selling more than 8,000 new and used cars. The group’s Chrysler Dodge Jeep business did especially well, ranking Yark 10th in the nation among Chrysler Group dealerships for new car sales.

Mr. Yark said the area’s ties to Chrysler Group LLC and the ongoing investment at the Jeep plant have helped drive both sales and the area’s prospects.

“Looking at Toledo, I just think the auto industry is truly making a positive difference in our economy,” he said.

One of the biggest reasons people are buying is that they are starting to feel better about their individual prospects.

“I think things are getting a little bit better, people are a little more confident in their own jobs, they’re more likely to spend money,” said Ron Patton, senior vice president of lending at Sylvania-based Directions Credit Union.

Directions’ total auto lending was up 24 percent last year from 2011. Mr. Patton believes 2013 will prove just as strong.

“The momentum is there from the previous year, and January typically isn’t the best time to buy a car,” he said. “We see that momentum, it’s still there.”

Overall, U.S. auto sales rose 13 percent last year to about 14.5 million new vehicles. While that's well shy of the 17 million peak in 2005, sales have come back considerably from their recession low in 2009 of 10.4 million.

Analysts and manufacturers are expecting sales to rise again in 2013. Though they don’t expect another double-digit gain, most expect sales to settle in the range of 15 million to 15.5 million.

TrueCar.com senior analyst Jesse Toprak said pent-up demand and people needing to replace aging vehicles certainly helped push auto sales higher in 2012. But Mr. Toprak said a bigger factor was that over the last few years many people were locked out of the market because of economic fear.

“Most of it, I think, has to do with consumers are feeling more comfortable making big-ticket item purchases in the current economic environment, and that’s the key,” he said.

That’s not to say that consumers who did buy a new car in 2012 are looking at a still-halting economy and seeing one bounding with optimism. Instead, Mr. Toprak argues many have learned by necessity to view uncertainty in realistic terms and to make tough decisions against that backdrop.

“There’s no one expecting the economy to be perfectly clear going on,” he said. “But life goes on. We have to buy cars.”

Still, the resurgent auto industry finding more buyers is a good sign. As the retail industry’s largest single sector, auto sales are viewed by many as an economic bellwether.

Lacey Plache, chief economist at Edmunds.com, said that notion is valid.

“The auto sector is the largest manufacturing industry in the economy,” Ms. Plache said. “It’s always kind of been a leading indicator of how things are going.”

In that way, the auto industry can almost feed upon itself. Better sentiments about the economy can help encourage people to buy, which in turn boosts the manufacturing base and the U.S. economy in whole.

Mr. Toprak also said the industry is of immense importance to the economy.

He pointed out that if you add up the people who make the cars, sell the cars, and service the cars, as well as other people employed by manufacturers and dealers, “there’s hundreds of thousands of people that this industry has an impact on,” he said. “So clearly by far it’s the most impactful sector in the industry.”

The Toledo Auto Dealers Association’s full-year 2012 sales figures based on dealer reports is still about a week away from being released. That data includes top-selling models and brands.

At the year’s halfway point, the association’s report listed Ford Motor Co. as the area’s top-selling brand and the Chrysler 200 as the area’s top-selling model.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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