LI auto sales chilled by bad weather

Snow-covered trucks sit in the lot at Smithtown Snow-covered trucks sit in the lot at Smithtown Ford in St. James on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. One dealer said the snow has made for strong sales of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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For Long Island's car dealers 2014 has gotten off to a bad start as bone-chilling cold and snowstorm after snowstorm have slowed showroom traffic and sales.

"People are not coming out of their houses," said Smithtown Toyota general manager Denis Dagger, who added his sales in January were down 20 percent from a year earlier. "We're halfway through February, and it looks like it could be even worse than January."

Meanwhile, many of the dealership's costs are up, he said, including snow plowing, heat for the buildings and financing costs of unsold inventory.

The only positive from the storms, he said: Sales of four-wheel-drive models are strong.

It's the same at Eagle Auto Mall in Riverhead, said owner Mark Calisi: "When the snow gets this bad, people definitely look to four-wheel drive." The dealership handles Chevrolet, Kia, Mazda and Volvo.

Overall, though, Calisi's sales were off by 25 percent in January, and they're doing only a little better in February. "The weather is killing us," he said.

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At Robert Chevrolet in Hicksville, things are a little better. "The weather is definitely affecting sales, no doubt about it," said owner Scott Brown.

In his case, though, it's a matter of a much smaller year-over-year increase than he had hoped for: 5 percent in January and probably the same this month. If the winter had been normal, he said, sales would have been up 10 percent to 20 percent from last year, driven by strong leasing programs on the Cruze sedan and Silverado pickup truck.

Auto industry analyst Michael Ward, based in Manhattan for the Sterne Agee brokerage, noted January and February usually are the slowest months for dealers and most sales not made in winter probably will be postponed rather than lost. "You don't not buy a car just because the weather is bad," he said.

Co-owner Michael Brown of the 22-store Atlantic Auto Group based in West Islip said the weather is "building pent-up demand. It's not like they're not going to come out ever."

For local dealers, the winter doldrums followed a December that was far weaker than a year earlier, when sales were inflated by replacement of cars destroyed by superstorm Sandy.

Long Islanders registered almost 14 percent fewer new cars and trucks in December than a year earlier, according to new figures from the auto data provider R.L. Polk & Co.

But December's total of 18,117 new registrations was 21 percent higher than the more normal December of 2011.

In all of last year, Long Islanders registered 210,468 new vehicles, Polk said -- 4 percent more than in 2012 and a 34 percent increase over 2009, when the recession officially ended.

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Most major brands showed declines, including Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Hyundai and Chevrolet. Exceptions among high-volume local sellers included Jeep, registrations of which rose by 24 percent to 1,314 vehicles; and Mercedes-Benz, registrations of which rose by 11.4 percent to 1,520 vehicles in December.

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