The Tampa Bay area is suffering far worse than the rest of the country in the nationwide slump in auto sales.
New vehicle registrations in the Tampa Bay area fell 16 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with a year ago. That's more than twice the national decline of 7 percent, according to automotive research firm R.L. Polk.
Some brands have fared better than others — and it doesn't take a market analyst to decipher why.
Honda and Mini, buoyed by demand for fuel-efficient vehicles, are bucking the industry downturn. Honda registrations in the bay area are up 11 percent, and Mini, maker of the popular Cooper series, has seen a jump of nearly 40 percent.
Fernando Fernandez, a sales manager at Brandon Honda, said the number of gas-guzzler trade-ins at his dealership has soared recently. "We just had one customer trade in his (Cadillac) Escalade for a new Civic," he said.
Among those showing the steepest declines are GMC, which saw a 30 percent fall in registrations, and Dodge, which plummeted 42 percent. Both brands rely heavily on trucks and SUVs in their model lineups.
Higher gas prices and fewer jobs may shoulder some of the blame for weak local sales. But industry professionals say many consumers also have trouble qualifying for a loan or are queasy about making an expensive purchase.
"The housing crunch has been a double whammy. A lot of people use their home equity to buy cars — and much of that has evaporated, said Jack Nerad, editorial director and market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
The other factor is psychological.
Potential car buyers are uncertain about their financial security and have entered a state of purchasing stasis.
"A lot of people can afford to buy a new vehicle, but they don't want to explain to their friends why they bought one," Nerad said. "You see a lot of postponement."
Even the used-car market, traditionally a crutch for auto dealers in times of economic turbulence, hasn't lived up to expectations in part because of the lower trade-in value of trucks and SUVs.
"Used-car sales have helped pull dealers through 2006 and 2007. But now we're seeing used-car values falling," said Paul Taylor, economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association. "That reduces the amount of trade-in equity against a new car."
Dominick Tao can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.