The new car model year gets underway this month with sport utility vehicles the hottest sellers on Long Island, auto dealers say.
New or redesigned vehicles for 2017 run from the $14,000 Mitsubishi Mirage subcompact to the $137,000 BMW Alpina B7 xDrive luxury sedan.
While self-driving cars remain years away from showrooms, advanced driver aids continue to proliferate. The 2017 Nissan Rogue SUV, for example, adds an optional lane-departure warning for the driver drifting out of lane plus lane-departure prevention to correct it. A suite of available 2016 features for the Rogue includes radar-based blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.
Carmakers are introducing new pure electric and hybrid gasoline electrics. Toyota makes another push at a plug-in hybrid (which can be recharged by household current and the engine-driven alternator) with the Prius Prime; Chrysler adds a hybrid version of the Pacifica minivan; and Kia introduces a hybrid SUV, the Niro. New pure electrics include the Chevrolet Bolt and Hyundai Ionic.
SUVs, however, remain the hottest selling segment of the new vehicle market, locally and nationally. There are new, redesigned or freshened 2017 models from Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, Infiniti, Jaguar, Kia, Maserati, Toyota and Volvo.
Registrations of new light trucks, including SUVs, pickups and minivans, rose by almost 12 percent in the 12-county area that includes Long Island through July, to 207,319, according to a report for the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association. (The results for July, the latest available, are estimated.) At the same time, registrations of passenger cars fell by 7 percent to 138,581.
Overall, registrations of new vehicles rose by 3.3 percent to 345,900 through July. New registrations approximate sales and new-vehicle leases.
There is no breakdown for Long Island by vehicle type, but local dealers say Nassau and Suffolk buyers are enamored of small trucks.
“The SUV and the pickup truck have become the main focus, definitely, on Long Island,” said general manager Denis Dagger of Smithtown Toyota, located in St. James. He said this year about 60 percent of sales have been of such vehicles, compared with 50 percent last year.
At the 22-store Atlantic Auto Group, based in West Islip, co-owner Michael Brown expects new SUVs from Volkswagen and Hyundai, coming in the 2017 calendar year as 2018 models, to boost his sales above the 50,000 new vehicles he forecasts for this year. Brown’s 2016 forecast represents a 7 percent or 8 percent increase from 2015, he said.
In part, he credits the winter’s relatively low snowfall, which helped boost sales in January and February over a year earlier.
“If interest rates stay at reasonable numbers, I think it will be another decent year with modest increases,” Brown said.
At the Eagle Auto Mall in Riverhead, a dealership handling Chevrolet, Volvo and Mazda, owner Mark Calisi said light trucks are about 50 percent of his sales, with the full-size Chevrolet Silverado pickup particularly popular among East End agricultural growers and tradespeople. He thinks the percentage could rise next year. “We’re getting a lot of internet queries already on the 2017 models,” he said.
At Smith Haven Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in St. James, whose lineup includes six SUV models, owner Brett Saslow said his overall car and truck sales are up by about 5 percent this year over last. That includes those at his nearby Mazda and Mitsubishi dealerships which collectively feature another five SUV models, as well as some cars.
It’s more than a matter of low gasoline prices. “I think most customers, if they had their druthers, would rather be in an SUV,” said Saslow. “They all drive like cars today and have all the accouterments of cars.”
At Sun Buick GMC in Wantagh, owner Patrick Cassino said that his GMC light-truck sales are running slightly ahead of last year, which was a record for him. And his Buick sales are up 50 percent, mostly on the strength of the Encore subcompact SUV, his best-seller, and the relatively new Envision, an SUV that falls between the large three-row Enclave and the Encore in size.
“SUVs and pickup trucks are fueling the car market right now,” Cassino said.
But he worries about the market as a whole. “I would say that in the future it’s going to be harder to grow,” Cassino said.
Smithtown Toyota’s Dagger expresses a similar outlook for the Long Island car market. “I think you’ll see a little bit of growth, but I don’t think you’ll see any major jump,” he said.
Dagger said that as the real estate market continues to recover from its recession crash, “I think people are back to investing in their homes” instead of buying as many cars.
One factor likely to boost auto sales on Long Island is the low unemployment rate, which fell to 4.1 percent in August from 4.5 percent in August 2015, the state Labor Department reported.
“The labor market has been consistently strong,” said John Rizzo, chief economist of the Long Island Association, a business group.
He said consumer confidence locally is high and — everywhere — interest rates are low for car loans and leases and almost every other type of borrowing. Rizzo also noted lower gasoline prices and a resilient stock market, both of which tend to boost consumer confidence.
But, he said, the presidential election and the early months of a new administration can be a negative for big-ticket sales.
“In any presidential election year there is uncertainty that leads to caution in terms of major purchases,” Rizzo said. Some consumers might still be skittish from their experiences during the Great Recession, even though it ended officially in 2009, Rizzo said.
Veteran automotive industry analyst Jesse Toprak, now running automotive website Carhub.com based in Beverly Hills said the growing popularity of SUVs is likely to continue, especially in sales of compact and midsize models.
Some of the most important 2017 SUV models in terms of their sales potential include a refreshed Ford Escape and redesigned Chevrolet Trax, GMC Acadia and Infiniti QX30, Toprak said.
Among cars, significant models include the redesigned Hyundai Elantra, Subaru Impreza and Mercedes-Benz E-Class and a refreshed Ford Fusion, he said.
As the new model year begins, regular gas averaged $2.370 on Long Island Friday morning, according to the AAA, down almost two cents from a year earlier. U.S. benchmark crude oil settled down 9 cents at $50.35 a barrel Friday on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up $3.72 from a year earlier.
At Smith Haven, owner Saslow says he also expects slower growth next year in new vehicle sales, but he and many industry experts say sales of late-model used vehicles will grow more strongly as cars leased during the heady years after the recession are returned to dealers. “Our used vehicles sales are up 20 percent this year,” Saslow said.