LI dealers optimistic about spring car sales

The 2015 Hyundai Genesis will be on exhibit The 2015 Hyundai Genesis will be on exhibit during the New York International Auto Show, which opens Friday, April 18, 2014, at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Hyundai

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After a bleak winter of slow auto sales, Long Island's car retailers hope buying accelerates this spring -- and that demand gets a turbo boost from the New York International Automobile Show, which opens Friday at the Javits Center in Manhattan.

The New York show -- like other major exhibitions -- has become an increasingly important event for spurring consumer interest in new vehicles.

"Auto shows, especially in recent years, have done really well in creating excitement, bringing back that excitement of owning a new car," said industry analyst Jesse Toprak, based in California for the auto information website Cars.com.

Show organizers say about 1,000 new cars and trucks will be on display in 950,000 square feet at Javits and they expect about a million visitors to what has long been the nation's best-attended auto show.

The 60 new models being shown this year are heavy on bread-and-butter transportation, including new or refreshed versions of popular cars like the Toyota Camry, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Jetta. But the show also features sizzling cars like a plug-in hybrid sports car from BMW, and a $160,000, 577-hp coupe from Mercedes-Benz.

Sales on the rise

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National sales figures for March suggest that optimism about a strong spring selling season on Long Island is warranted: U.S. sales rose 5.7 percent from a year earlier, to 1.54 million -- the highest March total in seven years, helped by better weather and discounts on vehicles. Even General Motors had a good month, despite bad publicity over its recall of almost 7 million vehicles for various defects, including faulty ignition switches on older small cars.

Figures for the Long Island market aren't available yet for March or February, but the year began badly. January's new-vehicle registrations were 9 percent lower than a year earlier, at 14,655 vehicles, said auto data provider R.L. Polk & Co.

March, though, was a different story, said Michael Brown, co-owner of the Island's largest dealership chain, the 22-store Atlantic Auto Group, based in West Islip.

"March was great," he said. "It really came on strong. I think there was a lot of pent-up demand caused by the snow." He said the group's sales were up 15 percent from a year earlier.

Toprak, of Cars.com, said most of the increase in car sales occurred late in the month, and he forecast several months of strong sales ahead nationally and in this region, plus continued discounting on cars as automakers and dealers seek to clear backlogged inventory from the slow winter. Toprak said vehicle stocks nationally are about 50 percent higher than is ideal for this time of year.

"Spring is typically one of the best times in the new-vehicle marketplace," he said. "We expect robust sales in the coming weeks and months, a lot of it fueled by seasonality, but this year you have the added factor of many consumers who postponed purchases in the last three months who are eager to buy now."

More new cars for LIers

Long Islanders registered 210,468 new cars and trucks last year, 4 percent more than the previous year and 34 percent more than 2009, the depth of the recession, when local registrations totaled only 157,283.

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But, while the sales outlook for coming months is strong, experts are forecasting small increases for all of 2014 versus last year. Toprak said he foresees only about a 3 percent increase nationally over last year, to 16.1 million vehicles, as deferred demand from purchases postponed during the recession is largely satisfied. "This year we're transitioning into a maturing market," he said.

Larry Dominique, president of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based ALG, which forecasts residual values of leased cars for automakers and lenders, said sales growth nationally this year also will be tempered by economic concerns at home and concerns about unrest abroad, including the crisis in Ukraine.

"There's good news on jobs but bad news on housing," he said. "We're just not seeing a full alignment of the macroeconomic and geopolitical arenas."

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