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3rd used-car chain motors into bay area

Another chain of used-car superstores is driving into Tampa Bay, a market that has already attracted the attention of two fast-growing competitors.

Driver's Mart Worldwide Inc., based in Grand Rapids, Mich., said Tuesday it will open two to six stores in the bay area in the next three to five years. The chain will stock 350 to 650 late-model used cars and trucks at each dealership.

It has signed up the Lokey Automotive Group, which operates 10 new-car dealerships in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Port Richey, to be the local franchisee.

Driver's Mart joins two other well-known used-car chains making deep inroads in the Tampa Bay market _ CarMax, which opened in Tampa last month; and AutoNation USA, which plans to open stores in Largo and Brandon this year.

These chains are tapping into a trend in car buying made successful by Saturn, one of no-haggle pricing and low-pressure sales tactics. The lots are often equipped with computers to help shoppers find what they are looking for. The retailers are hoping the stores significantly change the way Americans buy used cars.

All three chains are primed for torrid expansion. CarMax last month raised $437-million in an initial public offering by its parent company, Circuit City Stores Inc. The proceeds will be used to repay debt and add stores. Circuit City still owns 77 percent of the company.

Meanwhile, AutoNation is attracting all sorts of attention because of its high-profile founder, South Florida billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga. AutoNation, a subsidiary of Huizenga-led Republic Industries Inc., is not only intent on growing its used-car empire, but also is snapping up new-car dealerships. In January, the company purchased Carlisle Motor Co., one of Tampa Bay's leading auto dealerships.

Driver's Mart, unlike AutoNation and CarMax, is privately owned by a consortium of the nation's largest auto dealers. The company started with nine dealers and has grown to 24 with Tuesday's announcement.

Lokey Automotive Group operates Saturn, Kia, Nissan, Isuzu and Oldsmobile franchises, which are some of the highest-volume dealerships in the country, according to a statement released by Driver's Mart.

The statement said that the new franchisees each will build two to six superstores. The other new franchisees are in Jacksonville and Orlando.

Paul Lokey, president and chief executive of Lokey Automotive, and officials from Driver's Mart could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Driver's Mart currently has 40 superstores under development, representing a $300-million investment. The company plans to add 100 locations in the next three to five years.