Local News

Pedal to the metal

— At the dawn of 2014, Motor City analysts expected sales to grow, but at a slower pace than 2013. Turns out, this year is even better.

“We are up in new car sales, we’re up in used car sales, we’re up in total sales, service is up, parts is up, everything across the board is better this year than last,” Stanley Wells said after comparing January-to-June figures for both years.

New car sales in 2014 are exceeding pre-recession totals, according to figures from the Highlands County Tax Collector’s office. Dealers sold 1,924 new units in the first five months of 2007, and 12,405 for January-May 2014.

A 600 percent jump? That’s not a mistake, said Karen Jackson, administrative services director for the tax collector’s office. “I actually called one of the dealers to verify that they had sold such a large number in February of 2014 and they confirmed it.”

One of Alan Jay’s dealerships sells fleet vehicles, and that can involve large quantities of cars and trucks, Jackson said.

Even when she backs out a large number in February 2014, Highlands County dealers moved 3,010 new cars the first six months of this year versus 1,624 in 2007.

“Actually, I’m not surprised,” said Don Elwell, director of sales and marketing for the Alan Jay Automotive Network, which includes Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Ford, Kia, Lincoln, Nissan, Scion and Toyota brands. “April, May and June were some of the strongest months we’ve had in the last several years, going back to the history of Alan Jay.”

When the Great Recession started, gas shot up to $4.25 per gallon. Used trucks and vans were going for give-away prices.

This year, Wells and Elwell are reporting that the Ram, Sierra and F-150 are among the most popular vehicles on the market.

“We sold more medium-duty trucks that anything else last month,” Wells said. That’s 3/4 ton and up, and half of the trucks that rolled off the lot in May had diesel engines, even though diesel cost 25 cents more per gallon than regular gas.

One reason why: in the past two years, newly introduced six and eight-speed transmissions are boosting combined city-highway mileage to 25 mpg.

According to The Detroit News, Jeff Luke, executive chief engineer for pickups, GM’s 2015 trucks will probably have more gears existing six-speeds.

“Ram is coming out with a 12-speed,” Wells has heard.

The 2015 Ford will have an all-aluminum body that will weigh 700 pounds less than the 2014. That’s 15 percent less.

That will almost certainly increase the gas mileage, Elwell said. “It will be unbelievably high for trucks. I’ve heard them talking about maybe 27 28 for highway mileage.”

The local boom fits with an NADA.org report: year-to-date sales of light vehicles numbered 8.1 million in June 2014, up 4.2 percent from a year ago, and the second half of the year will be even better, analysts are saying. For 2013, U.S. car sales rose 7.6 percent to 15.6 million, according to Edmunds.com.

In the Great Recession, customers turned to the smallest, fuel-efficient cars, which account for about 15 percent of sales today, Elwell said. The Prius, Camry hybrid and Avalon hybrid are still on the list of hottest-selling Toyotas, and so is the Ford Fusion hybrid. Locally, the Ultima — “Which is what I’m driving right now as a demo." — is on Nissan’s best-seller list.

Mini-vans were always a top seller at Wells, but the new hottie is the new Jeep Cherokee. “It’s priced right, it’s a little smaller than the Grand Cherokee, and it’s considerably less money. There’s not a better hauler than minivan. It’s just not listed as a cool vehicle to drive.”

The coolest car to drive isn’t technically a car or an SUV, it’s the cross utility vehicle. The CUV held the largest share of June 2014 year-to-date sales at 26.5 percent. Among CUVs, the Honda CR-V was the leader of the pack, followed closely by the Ford Escape.

The 2015 model years are already coming out, Wells said, but added, “The 2014 is a better buy, and the rebate is generally considerable.”