Long Island's new vehicle market remained strong last year as a continued surge in popularity of SUVs, pickups and vans outweighed declining interest in passenger cars.
Still, the local market was essentially flat compared with 2017, with 239,348 new cars and trucks registered in Nassau and Suffolk, according to new figures from IHS Markit, a global business information provider based in London. The total is about 1 percent higher than a year earlier.
Led by the Nissan Rogue last year, new registrations of light-duty trucks — SUVs, vans or pickups — on Long Island rose by almost 10 percent from a year earlier, to 167,637 units. Registrations of passenger cars fell by 15.3 percent to 71,711.
A list of the 10 bestselling vehicles in Nassau and Suffolk last year, provided by IHS Markit, included, in addition to the Rogue, six other SUVs, the Ram full-sized pickup truck produced by Fiat Chrysler; and two passenger cars from Honda, the Civic and the Accord.
More SUV models are entering the market; this week's media preview of the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan is to include debuts of redesigned Ford Escape and Toyota Highlander SUVs and new compact SUVs, including Hyundai's Venue and Lincoln's Corsair.
"I'd say about 80 percent of my sales are SUVs," said Mark Calisi, owner of the Eagle Auto Mall in Riverhead, which retails Chevrolet, Mazda, Kia and Volvo vehicles. "Unless gas prices go up, I don't see that changing," he added.
Meanwhile, some passenger car models are being phased out, including the Ford Taurus, Chrysler 200 and Chevrolet Cruze.
Nationally, last year's market picture was similar, IHS Markit said. Total new vehicle registrations were essentially unchanged from 2017, at 17.2 million. Registrations approximate sales, for which local figures are not available.
Some experts, including economists at the National Automobile Dealers Association, have forecast a small decline in sales nationally this year, amid tighter credit. Through February, sales nationally were down 2.6 percent, according to figures published by the trade paper Automotive News. Annual sales nationally dropped to 10.4 million a decade ago, at the low point of the last recession.
Helping stimulate the market, experts say, is low unemployment — 3.7 percent on Long Island in February, the lowest rate for that month since 2001, said the state Labor Department.
Consumer confidence in the metropolitan area is high, the Siena College Research Institute said April 9; its Index of Consumer Sentiment was at 96.3 points in March for Long Island, New York City and its northern suburbs. A year earlier the index stood at 89.3. Consumer sentiment readings above 76 points indicate that the number of residents who are optimistic about their immediate financial future is larger than the number who are pessimistic. The index hit a 10-year high of 97.6 points in December.
In a monthly report to members earlier this month, chief economist John Rizzo of the Long Island Association business group wrote, "The labor market was by far the best performing sector of Long Island’s economy. This is good news for consumer spending and economic growth going forward."
At the same time, rising prices of vehicles are straining some household budgets. The average new vehicle cost $35,285 in March, according to the Kelley Blue Book, a car pricing guide, up 2 percent from a year earlier. A major factor was light trucks, which tend to be more expensive than cars.
Monthly car payments are rising as a result, to more than $500 by various estimates. Edmunds Inc., the California auto information company, estimated that interest rates on new vehicles hit their highest level since 2009 in February: 6.26 percent annually, compared to 5.19 percent a year earlier and 4.56 percent five years ago.
Rizzo thinks that will stabilize. "I think the [Federal Reserve] is going to hold off on interest rate hikes for the rest of the year, and that is good for the auto market," he said in an interview. "If they raise rates, other rates will go up, including car loans."
Long Island car dealer Brett Saslow, owner of Smith Haven Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, Smith Haven Mazda and Smith Haven Mitsubishi, all in St. James, said higher interest rates, smaller federal income tax refunds for many and new limits on deductions for property taxes have combined to crimp his sales this year through March, by about 10 percent. "Just a tougher new car year, all around," he said.
2018 best-selling new vehicle models in Nassau and Suffolk
1. Nissan Rogue
2. Jeep Grand Cherokee
3. Honda CR-V
4. Toyota RAV4
5. Chevrolet Equinox
6. Honda Civic
7. Ram pickup truck
8. Honda Accord
9. Jeep Wrangler
10. Jeep Compass
Based on new vehicle registrations.
Source: IHS Markit