There is a new sign that Maryland's economy might be heading down the road to recovery.
Consumers -- many of whom had been keeping a close rein on their pocketbooks -- went on a spending spree last month, boosting new-car sales in the state by an estimated 14.5 percent compared with March 1991, according to registration figures released yesterday by the Motor Vehicle Administration.
March sales also were nearly 50 percent ahead of February's pace.
MVA's figures, which track the number of new vehicles registered in the state, are the clearest indication of new-car sales, state officials said. The auto industry does not report new-car sales in the state.
According to the MVA statistics, 22,352 new vehicles were registered in Maryland last month, up from 19,521 cars and trucks a year earlier and 15,153 vehicles in February.
"This is a very good sign that Maryland is easing out of the recession," said Michael A. Conte, director of the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Center for Business and Economic Studies.
Mr. Conte said consumers traditionally "spring for a new car when they are optimistic about the future, have money in the bank, confidence in their jobs, or when they have received a raise or a bonus or expect to receive a raise or a bonus."
Although the MVA figures suggest that consumers are buying more cars, they apparently are buying fewer luxury options or taking advantage of manufacturers' incentives to reduce their investment. The average purchase price of a new car last month was $15,744, down from $16,238 in February, according to the MVA, while the average price of a used car held steady at slightly more than $4,000.
The total value of new vehicles registered last month was $351.9 million, up from $246.1 million in February.
Dealers, many of whom have been struggling in recent years, seem cautiously optimistic.
"March was our best month in seven months," said Tom Bardelman general sales manager at Bill Kidd's Timonium Toyota-Volvo. The dealership once sold out of 1992 Camrys, he said.
"Things are good, but not great," he said, noting that the dealership sold 183 cars last month, compared with as many as 300 a month three to four years ago.
Thomas J. O'Donnell, who owns Pontiac, Volvo, Honda, Isuzu and GMC truck outlets in the Ellicott City area, said he has seen a gradual increase in business, but not a big one. He said he doesn't think Maryland's economy is "doing all that well. I'm not sure that anyone in retailing feels that way."
John Sophocles, sales manager at Jerry's Chevrolet-Geo in Parkville, predicted a slow increase in sales this year. He said some of last month's gain might have resulted from factory rebates of up to $2,000 on some models.
The following data track new titles issued by the Motor Vehicle Administration and are often considered an indicator of car sales in the state.
Month .. .. .. 1992 .. .. .. 1991
Jan.. .. .. .. 18,232. .. .. 21,253
Feb.. .. .. .. 15,153. .. .. 15,884
March .. .. .. 22,352. .. .. 19,521
AVG. COST OF NEW CAR
Month .. .. .. 1992 .. .. .. 1992
Jan.. .. .. .. $16,293 .. .. $16,003
Feb.. .. .. ... 16,238 .. ... 15,389
March .. .. ... 15,744 .. ... 14,993