Despite sales drop, Md. dealers pleased They sold 3% fewer new cars, but still had strong performance

January 29, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

New-car sales in Maryland declined 3 percent last year, but dealers still had reasons to celebrate.

"It was a good year," said Jacob J. Cohen, managing director for the Automotive Group of American Express Tax and Business Services Inc.'s Towson office.

Figures released by the Motor Vehicle Administration yesterday support Cohen's assessment of the year just ended. According to the MVA, dealers sold 331,085 new cars and trucks last year. That compares with a strong 1996, when sales jumped 18 percent and totaled 341,198.

That made last year the third best year since 1991, when the MVA resumed releasing sales figures. The best year was 1994, when motorists purchased 349,293 new vehicles.

Dealers also benefited last year from a 5.4 percent jump in used-car sales, which provide greater per-unit profit. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, the average profit on a vehicle sold from the used car lot is $175, compared to $55 for a new model.

"I don't know anybody in the industry who would not like to take a replay of last year," said Raymond C. Nichols, chairman of BSCAmerica Inc., a Baltimore-based company that operates six auto auctions throughout the country.

Sales were a little sluggish in November and December, he said, "but 1997 was not a bad year."

New-vehicle sales were off 10.1 percent last month compared with December 1996. The MVA reported that consumers bought 22,533 new vehicles last month, compared with 25,081 in the same period the previous year.

The MVA reported total used-vehicle sales in December rose 1.3 percent to 38,111 units. That compared with sales of 37,619 in December 1996.

Cohen said that new-vehicle sales would likely have been better last year if dealers could have kept more of the hot-selling sport utility vehicles in stock.

He said consumer demand continued to shift from cars to light trucks last year and many dealers couldn't get enough of the hot-selling trucks.

According to the MVA, the average price of a new car was $22,639 last month. The average used car purchase price was $6,676.

The sales pace here was just slightly below the national level, according to Automotive News, an industry trade publication. U.S. sales of car and light trucks totaled 15.2 million last year, up only 0.1 percent from the year before.

The top 10 selling vehicles in the country last year included four pickup trucks, a sport utility vehicle, three import cars and two domestic sedans.

Automotive News reported that the full-size Ford pickup was the sales leader, followed by its counterpart at Chevrolet. The best-selling car was the Toyota Camry, followed by the Honda Accord and the Ford Explorer.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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