Auto sales are off and running this year as if powered by a V8 engine. One beneficiary is Ford Motor, alone among the big domestic automakers for not seeking a recent federal bailout. Ford's Tampa Bay area dealers are reporting big surges in vehicle sales. • "Everything across the board seems to be selling well," says Wayne Hammond, general manager and a partner in Brandon Ford. The No. 1 Ford dealership in Florida every year since 2007 saw new auto sales jump to 420 vehicles, up 175 percent in the first two months of this year compared with sales in the same period last year.
"We're up 46 percent so far this year," adds Elder Automotive Group president Robert Elder, whose Elder Ford of Tampa is Ford's newest dealership in the city. "We can't get enough Ford Explorers," he says, with the next 15 on order already sold.
The past few years have been very dark for the auto industry. Annual sales, which routinely topped 17 million new vehicles for most of the past decade, dropped by nearly 7 million in both 2008 and 2009. While domestic giants General Motors and Chrysler chose bankruptcy and government bailouts to survive — both are now out of Chapter 11 — Ford managed to persevere on its own.
That difference, suggests Rick Brisson, Ford's regional sales manager for central and northern Florida, also helps in the showrooms. "I hear it from customers," he says. "They say they are considering Ford because we did not seek assistance in the downturn."
Other factors also are at play in Ford's favor. While the F-150 pick-up remains Ford's top seller nationwide, the company insists its future growth depends on the introduction of smaller, fuel-efficient cars. Beyond their appeal to buyers sensitive to rising gas prices, these cars are Ford's missing product link — lower-priced vehicles for perhaps the most important segment of auto shoppers: young and first-timers who have no brand allegiance yet.
"It's all about creating loyalty," says George Pipas, the veteran U.S. sales analyst at Ford Motor. Ford's U.S. market share plummeted from 25 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2009, he says, because Ford lacked the quality smaller vehicles many first-time buyers want. Ford's trio of "F" cars — the Fiesta, Fusion and Focus — are considered game changers for the domestic automaker.
But Ford is hardly the only winner so far this year.
Across seven counties that broadly make up the Tampa Bay market, industrywide sales of new vehicles rose a dramatic 66 percent in the first two months of 2011. It's a testament to an improving economy. It's a sign of more available credit. It reflects the pent-up demand of consumers who held on to aging vehicles longer than usual. And it's a byproduct of more automakers making more vehicles with features that consumers want, including better fuel efficiency, hybrid engines, advanced electronics and entertainment options, and improving reliability.
Last week, Ford luxury brand Lincoln even took the top spot for the first time in a closely watched survey of long-term vehicle quality. Lincoln ranked No. 1 in J.D. Power's annual vehicle dependability survey for 2011, ahead of Lexus, Jaguar, Porsche and Toyota.
J.D. Power says that, overall, domestic U.S. car brands are narrowing the gap in initial quality with imported autos, but lag in long-term dependability.
General Motors is getting back on its feet again. It ranked as the top seller of vehicles in the United States in 2010. Locally, GM dealers like Tampa's Gordon Chevrolet (sales up 158 percent in the first two months of 2011), Pasco County's Castriota Chevrolet in Hudson (up 50 percent) and St. Petersburg's Maher Chevrolet (up 114 percent) all started this year with good momentum.
The Hyundai brand also continues its meteoric rise. In sales muscle, Hyundai of New Port Richey dominates all area dealerships of any make or model. The dealer doubled to 847 its new vehicle sales in the first two months of 2011 from 421 vehicles sold in the same period last year. Brandon Hyundai/Mitsubishi also reported a big leap in sales so far this year.
Area Ford dealers say they are starting to see more customers sensitive to rising gas prices. But so far, it is not translating into any dramatic shifts in buying habits to smaller vehicles. Many newer Ford models of all sizes now boast improved gas mileage. People with families still like big vehicles with seating for seven. And people who rely on trucks for work will still buy pickups.
At Brandon Ford, general manager Hammond credits the rebound in Ford products to a shift away from the company's practice of producing lots of vehicles. Ford used to "shove" them at their dealers and make them take more than they thought they could sell. "Now Ford is market-driven," Hammond says. The automaker makes fewer vehicles so a high-volume dealership like Hammond's always feels like it has fewer vehicles in stock than it wants.
Can the uptick in auto sales be sustained, especially in Tampa Bay and Florida, where the broader economy still struggles? Ford regional manager Brisson ticks off some of his concerns. He calls them his "worry beads."
Central Florida unemployment is around 12 percent and, he says, probably closer to 20 percent when underemployed people are included. Florida's housing market remains dominated by short sales and foreclosures. Brisson sees improvement, but it is slow.
On the other hand, counters the 26-year Ford Motor veteran: Never underestimate the bond between consumers and their autos.
"America loves its wheels," Brisson says. "People will only downsize for so long before they feel they need a new vehicle."
If true, that consumer momentum should continue to boost automakers this year. Potential bumps in the road include unforeseen dips in the economic recovery and more spikes in gas prices. Broader consequences of the ongoing disaster in Japan are also a wild card.
That's a lot of maybes. But Ford's feeling pretty confident that it's poised to be one of the auto industry's winners.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]