They're not honking their horns just yet, but Maryland auto dealers are more than just a little upbeat about the slight decline in sales of new cars last month.
Although a decline is a decline, dealers think the numbers suggest they are about to turn the corner on the difficult times they have faced the past two years and head down the road to recovery.
Title-registration figures released yesterday by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration show that sales of new vehicles totaled 15,153 in February, down 4.6 percent from 15,884 a year earlier.
Although that is not an obvious turnaround, the January sales figures help in understanding the dealers' new-found optimism. That month, registrations of new vehicles declined 14.2 percent, to 18,232, compared with January 1991.
"February was a good month for us -- a surprisingly good month, comparatively speaking," said Joseph A. Levy, president of Admiral Pontiac-Mazda in Glen Burnie. "This is not like '87 or '88," he said, referring to a period when sales were significantly higher.
Mr. Levy said his sales were off about 10 percent last month compared with the same month a year ago, but that he had seen signs of increased consumer interest, along with more showroom traffic, since the second week of the month. "Consumers who feel their jobs are safe are buying," he said, "and they are not buying cheap, stripped-down models. They're buying the models they like" with luxury options, such as air conditioning and sun roofs.
At Jerry's Chevrolet in Parkville, John Sophocles, general manager, said, "We're encouraged by what we're seeing. There's a feeling that we've bottomed out, and when the weather turns warmer, we feel there are going to be sales increases beyond the normal seasonal adjustments."
Joseph P. Carroll, head of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, said dealers in the state think the long decline in auto sales "appears to be leveling off, and we are hopeful they will pick up gradually throughout the year."
The MVA figures also show that used car sales fell 2.1 percent last month, to 33,678, from 34,384 in February 1991.
James P. Lang, a spokesman for the MVA, said the figures released yesterday include vehicles purchased outside of Maryland but registered in the state. The figures also include commercial vehicles.