Saturday, December 16, 2017
Business

Tampa Bay auto sales offer bright light in dim regional economy

Listen to enough dour economists these days and it starts to feel like we're on the road back to Recessionville. Maybe that's why so many Tampa Bay folks are buying new vehicles.

To drive somewhere else.

Auto dealerships may not be doing cartwheels but vehicle sales are a bright light in a dim regional business scene. Consider the 18.8 percent jump in new autos sales in the first half of 2012 in Pasco County, where dealerships sold 14,218 vehicles. And dealerships in the larger Hillsborough and Pinellas county markets enjoyed six-month sales of nearly 45,000 new vehicles combined. That's up about 9 percent.

Scott Fink's Hyundai of New Port Richey dealership continued to dominate metro area dealers in new vehicle sales. Yet despite selling more than 3,000 vehicles so far this year, Fink is only marginally upbeat.

"The overall feel is just okay. There's still plenty of negative economic circumstances to overcome," he says. Fink cites the still troubled housing sector, the increasing cost of living, high unemployment and wage pressure on those with jobs.

Still, Fink says banks are making credit more available. Other dealers agree but add that banks are aggressively pricing loans differently for different customers.

People with average credit scores tend to get loans with interest rates between 6 and 8 percent. People with top credit get the same loans at between 2 and 4 percent.

People also are hanging on to their vehicles longer, which means more pent-up demand for new vehicles is now surfacing.

"The age of the average car on the road is the highest it's been in history," Fink says.

In Hudson, Chevrolet dealer Tom Castriota sees more customers than ever with 7- to 10-year-old vehicles and six-figure mileages. "Those people are getting out of those cars because they have to," he says.

Gas prices also have greatly influenced the industry.

People were nervous when gas was near $4 a gallon. But even at $3.29, Castriota says his buyers want the next generation of vehicles with better mileage. Many Chevrolet brands top 30 miles per gallon while the Chevy Spark boasts highway mileage approaching 40 mpg.

Big SUVs and pickups remain modest sellers. True, they get fewer miles to the gallon, but it's also because those types of vehicles appealed to the still depressed construction industry, Castriota says.

GM's in the midst of refreshing the designs of many of its models. That's good news for dealers like Castriota's — if he can get enough inventory of the new vehicles in the coming year.

Some area dealerships, especially those selling Toyotas and to a lesser extent Hondas, enjoyed strong first-half sales increases, based on data from AutoCount. It marks a comeback by the Japanese automakers hit hard after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Brandon Ford remained the biggest area dealer of domestic vehicles as Ford enjoyed three models (F Series pickup, Escape and Fusion) among the nation's top 10 best sellers in June.

What will be the top selling vehicles ahead? Watch the price of gas, suggests Fink.

"It's still top of mind on the consumer's list."

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]

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