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Car sales accelerate in June, offering economic hope

DETROIT – From minicars to monster pickups, sales of vehicles charged higher in June and eased concerns that Americans would be turned off by slower hiring and other scary headlines.

Automakers reported big gains over June of last year. Chrysler posted its best June in five years. Sales surged at Volkswagen, which is on track for its best year in the U.S. since 1973.

The results allayed fears that growth would stall after a strong start to 2012. Earlier this spring, sales were on track to reach
14.5 million this year, boosted by mild weather and the post-earthquake return of Japanese inventories. But the pace dropped to 13.8 million in May, as the stock market plunged and hiring slowed. In June, there was more bad news about jobs growth, and consumer confidence fell for the fourth straight month.

But buyers didn’t go away. Falling gasoline prices, cheaper loans and new models like the Ford Escape and Dodge Dart drew them out. A revived housing market lifted sales of pickups.

By early Tuesday, The Detroit Three all said they expected the sales rate to top 14 million.

One local car dealer was equally optimistic.

“Especially if you look at year over year, we’ve seen a steady increase over the last three years,” said Tyler Corder, chief financial officer of Henderson-based Findlay Automotive Group, which owns 32 dealerships in four states. “2009 was a challenging year, but I was just looking at our Acura sales and they’re up 72 percent from a year ago.”

Corder also reported a 29 percent increase in Cadillac sales, 27 percent increase in Audi sales and 47 percent increase in Chevrolet sales.

For Chrysler, sales of the tiny Fiat 500 and Chrysler 300 large sedan more than doubled from a year earlier. General Motors’ sales rose 16 percent, helped by strong demand for the Chevy Malibu and Volt electric car.

Pickup truck sales grew stronger as home building perked up. Chrysler’s Ram pickup sales rose 12 percent and sales of the Ford F-Series – which has long been the country’s best-selling vehicle – rose 11 percent.

Ford’s overall sales rose 7 percent. The Escape small sport utility vehicle posted its best month ever – rising 28 percent – after a new version of the popular vehicle arrived at dealerships. Ford said 40 percent of Escapes sold were new models, while the rest were heavily discounted older versions. Sales of the Ford Explorer SUV were also up 35 percent.

Toyota Motor Corp. said its sales were up 60 percent for the month, but that wasn’t surprising. Last year, Toyota and Honda had little inventory at U.S. dealerships because of the earthquake in Japan.

Japanese automakers are taking back sales that its rivals gained last year. The Chevrolet Cruze, for example, was the top-selling car in the country last June, but its sales were down 24 percent last month.

There continues to be a lot of demand from buyers who bought cars in the middle of the last decade and need to replace them. Annual sales hit a high of 17 million in 2005, and those cars are now 7 years old.

Consumers are concerned about gasoline mileage, but it’s not the primary factor in their buying decision, Corder said.

“Gas prices have been stable for a while,” he said. “People are looking at $3.45 a gallon now and it was $3.90. People are feeling good about it. As long as gas prices are stable, that’s not the No. 1 motivation.”

Low interest rates and better credit availability are also luring buyers. The average interest rate on a 60-month new-car loan is now 4.5 percent, down from 6.98 percent two years ago, according to Bankrate.com.

Even if sales come in at 13.8 million for the year, they would still be stronger than the 12.8 million in 2011. And they’d be much stronger than the 30-year low of 10.4 million during the recession in 2009.

Other automakers reporting Tuesday:

■ Nissan Motor Co. said its sales were up 28 percent. Nissan’s Infiniti luxury brand was up 66 percent thanks to the new Infiniti JX crossover.

■ Volkswagen’s sales rose 34 percent on strong demand for two recently redesigned cars: the Beetle and the Passat. Volkswagen is on track to have its best year in the United States since 1973 thanks to a cheaper, revamped lineup.

New car sales are particularly strong for Hyundai because the price point is so attractive, said Ron Coury, co-owner of Planet Hyundai in Las Vegas.

“Add to that the longest new-car warranty in the business and excellent fuel efficiency at a time when gas prices weigh heavy on drivers’ minds and you have the formula for success,” he said.

Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Hubble Smith contributed to this report.

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