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Long Island auto dealers: business improving

The Chevrolet badge is displayed on the grill

The Chevrolet badge is displayed on the grill of a new GM car outside Huntington Chevrolet on May 14, 2009, in Huntington. Credit: Newsday File / John Dunn

Long Island car dealers caught a major break in November as business improved from a year ago by 16.5 percent despite the continued recession and high unemployment.

And industry experts, including the head of the New York City region's largest automobile group, said they expect data for December and this month to show continued improvement.

Figures provided to Newsday by the auto data company R.L. Polk of Southfield, Mich., show registrations of new cars and trucks here rose to 13,257 vehicles in November.

It was the third time in 2009 that the total exceeded 2008 data; the first was in August, when the federal "Cash for Clunkers" program boosted new vehicle registrations by 19 percent in Nassau and Suffolk. But the number dropped again when the program ended. In October, registrations ran 2.7 percent ahead of a weak period a year earlier.

Mark Schienberg, president of the 400-plus-member Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, attributes November's much-improved figure to the re-availability of leases on many models, pent-up demand from people who had postponed vehicle purchases, and what appears to be a nascent recovery from the recession.

"I think there was a sense that we're out of the worst part of this thing," he said. "The showrooms were busier and sales were coming back."

That was the case more so for Asian brands than for domestics.

For many of the Island's dwindling number of Detroit Three car and truck dealers, in November the collective improvement was from awful to only bad: Collectively, their November new registrations were 5.7 percent behind those a year earlier - the smallest decline of the year.

General Motors gained back a point of market share, though, and Ford dropped just a fraction of a point while Chrysler lost more than 5 points of share from a year earlier, mostly on the collapse of Jeep sales. Most of the Detroit Three losses were to Japanese and Korean brands so that, in November, 58 percent of new cars and trucks registered in Nassau and Suffolk Counties bore Asian nameplates, up from 55.8 percent a year earlier.

In Freeport, dealer Paul Conte said that last year was the best at the Chevrolet store that bears his family name since it opened more than 20 years ago. He credits highly rated and strong-selling new models such as the redesigned Camaro, Malibu and the Equinox SUV but said also that the closing of a competitor, Bast Chevrolet in Seaford, helped.

"I can't tell you to what degree," he said yesterdayWednesday, "but it has certainly increased our shop's business a lot and our sales also."

December figures aren't available yet for Long Island, but Schienberg said he believes the overall improvement continued.

Still, nationally and locally, auto retailers have a long way to go to recover fully from their sales slump. November's increase on Long Island, for example, didn't even come close to regaining the ground lost a year earlier, when registrations fell by more than 28 percent from 2007 levels.

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