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For most of its history, the Jeep Wrangler was a vehicle that had a strong following, but not among many mainstream buyers. Ralph Mahalak, Jr., believes those times have come to an end.
“I think Wrangler, especially the four-door, has broken out of its shell as a niche vehicle,” said Mr. Mahalak, a car dealer in Monroe. “I think the demographics are growing.”
Looking at sales numbers alone, it certainly seems so.
The Toledo-build sport utility vehicle set a sales record last year and is well on its way to a record during 2013.
The vehicle again had its best sales month ever in May, with Chrysler Group LLC reporting U.S. sales of 16,272. That crushed the previous monthly sales record of 14,461, set in June, 2012. Sales were up 13 percent over May, 2012, which was a record at the time.
Analysts were expecting a solid May for U.S. auto sales, and numbers reported Monday bore that out. Overall, Chrysler said its sales were up 11 percent, to 166,596. The gain extends Chrysler’s streak of year-over-year sales gains to 38 months.
Ford Motor Co. had an even better month, reporting its sales up 14 percent to 246,585 vehicles.
General Motors Co. posted a much more modest 3 percent gain to 252,894 vehicles.
All three domestic automakers were helped by a surge in truck sales. Ford said sales of its top-selling F-series were up 31 percent from last year. The company said pent-up demand and construction growth fueled the sales growth.
The strongest increases for full-size pickups in May were in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Miami, and New York — areas Ford says are among the hottest U.S. housing markets right now. Overall, Ford said truck sales rose 18 percent.
In spite of its tepid overall sales growth, GM also saw strong gains for trucks. Sales were up 15 percent from last year, including a 23 percent increase for large pickups and a 30 percent increase for large SUVs, the company said.
Chrysler said total truck sales were up 9 percent, though sales of the full-size Dodge Ram gained 22 percent versus last year.
“New home construction remains, really, the driving force behind growth in the pickup truck market, not to mention the fact that the energy markets have been booming out there,” Alec Gutierrez, an industry analyst for Kelley Blue Book, told Reuters. “It means a ton for the domestic manufacturers. They really dominate the segment.”
Pickups tend to be more profitable than smaller vehicles, helping automakers with their bottom lines.
The Ram, which is typically Chrysler Group’s top-selling vehicle by a wide margin, was the only model to outsell Wrangler in May.
The story on Wrangler has seemingly been the same for nearly two years: Sales are great, but the maxed-out Toledo plant can’t build enough to meet demand.
If anything was surprising about the new sales record to Mr. Mahalak, who owns the Monroe Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram Superstore in Monroe, it was that there were enough Wranglers to go around.
“I’ve got four Jeep stores right now, and the stock at our stores is just atrocious,” he said. “Availability is so bad. The good news is we’ve got some coming in later this month and in July.”
Chrysler and the local Untied Auto Workers unit have worked together to find creative ways to build more Wranglers, including a recent change that keeps the line moving through workers’ breaks.
Bruce Baumhower, the president of UAW Local 12, said the success of Wrangler is a great story for Toledo. “I don’t think the end is anywhere near,” he said.
Overall, U.S. consumers bought 1.4 million vehicles in May, up 8 percent from the same month a year ago, according to Autodata Corp.
The results suggest the auto industry will remain a bright spot in an economy that’s been slowed by weak manufacturing. And the boost from the industry will help sustain the economy’s steady job growth.
Most automakers topped analysts’ expectations last month, with Nissan reporting its highest May sales ever after cutting prices on seven popular models. Honda and Toyota reported increases of 4.5 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. Hyundai was up 4.7 percent.
Volkswagen, with a decrease of 1.7 percent, was the only company whose sales were down from last May.
The sales increases have reverberated in the job market. Ford said in early May that it’s adding 2,000 workers to the Missouri plant that makes the F-150. From January through April, automakers and parts companies hired 14,600 workers, and the Center for Automotive Research expects them to add 35,000 during the full year.
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