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2011 auto sales were strong in York County

Last week's news that the auto industry posted record sales in 2011 did not surprise Kelly Alston, Claude Burns, Mike Cessna, Todd Grubb or David Hart.

They, and others, sell cars in York County.

Alston is the general manager for Stateline Chrysler Jeep Dodge on Gold Hill Road near Fort Mill. Cessna is the general sales manager for Harrelson Nissan on Cherry Road in Rock Hill. Grubb is the general manager for Fort Mill Ford, also off Gold Hill Road. Hart is the general manager for Toyota Rock Hill, which has settled into its new location next to the Galleria.

Burns is one of the elder statesmen among local dealers. The owner of Burns Chevrolet on Cherry Road started working in his family business when he was 10 years old in 1968. He sold his first car in 1976 and has been a dealer since 1984.

"The news media has been saying one thing, but consumers are speaking louder with their pocketbooks," said Alston. His dealership posted record numbers in 2011.

Auto dealers have been seeing a steady increase all year, they said. People are coming to buy, and November and December sales were nationally and locally among the best they've been.

In the what the industry calls the 13th month - the time between Christmas and New Year's - Harrelson Nissan sold 53 cars in a week, Cessna said.

Nationally, buyers' confidence in the economy, the need to replace aging vehicles - the average age for a U.S. car is now 11 years - and easier financing were the reasons cited for increased sales.

Locally, dealers put financing first, having eye-catching, reliable cars second and offering good service third as the reasons for sales.

As Burn points out, dealers don't really "sell" cars.

"We arrange financing," he said.

For most of 2009 and 2010 it was difficult to get financing unless the applicant had a perfect credit history, Burns said.

In 2011 - and more so in the last six months - banks relaxed credit policies, dealers said. The change made it easier for people with a credit score of 500 to 600 - a "subprime" score - to get financing, Cessna said.

(Credit is scored on a scale from 300 to 850, the higher score being the best. Typically, banks give their best interest rates to consumers with a credit score of 750 or higher. According to Informa Research Services, a credit score of 660 or better generally results in an auto loan of 8 percent or better in South Carolina. Conversely, score less than 600, and the interest rate can be as much as 16 percent or worse.)

Updated cars, Alston said, were a prime reason many came to the Chrysler dealership. "There were new products, better workmanship and appearance, that opened consumers' eyes," he said.

The result was a 26 percent increase in sales nationally for the once ailing Chrysler, making it No. 1 for increased volume among the major automakers. At Stateline, sales were up 45 percent over last year, Alston said.

Best sellers, he said, were the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Jeep Wrangler, the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Charger.

It was a new Chevy model that also sparked customer interest - the Cruze, the compact that replaced the Cobalt.

Cobalt compounds have been used for centuries to impart a rich blue color to glass, glazes and ceramics. There was nothing rich about Chevy's Cobalt; it failed as a moneymaker.

The Cruze's styling catches people's attention, Burns said. So does its crash-test data, the number of air bags and its fuel economy, he added.

Sales of Camaros were also up, Burns said. Nationally, they increased 20 percent.

Of the Japanese-based automakers, Nissan recovered more quickly than Honda and Toyota from the March earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan.

Nationally, Nissan sales were up 15 percent over last year. Locally, the Altima, Versa and Frontier pickup were big sellers for Harrelson. The dealership also averaged two to three sales monthly of the all-electric Leaf, Cessna said.

While Toyota suffered its worst sales year in 30 years, the Rock Hill dealership posted gains, Hart said. Sales of used cars rose 40 percent over last year, and new car sales were up 10 percent, he said.

Sales were good in December because that's one of the months Toyota promotes most heavily with its "Toyotathon," Hart added. The Rock Hill dealership was one of 124 out of 172 dealerships in the Southeast that hit 110 percent of its sales goals for the promotion, Hart said.

Hart expects sales to increase in the next years as Toyota unveils 13 new models. The Avalon, Camry and Rav4 get new looks, he said.

So Honda and Toyota look to rebound in 2012 while Detroit's big three want to add to their success, capturing more of the midsize and small-car sales.

Chrysler is bringing back its Dodge Dart nameplate for its small-car entry. Dodge Charger and Chevy Camaro sales are up. In the spring, Toyota releases its SCION FSR, which stands for front-engine, rear-wheel drive sports car. Looks like automakers are going old school to capture sales.

Then there's the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, the Toyota Prius and other hybrids and electric vehicles. Dealers hope sales of these new-school cars rise too.

Sales projection for 2012 for those looking for the old school, the new school - or just reliable transportation - are between 13.5 million and 14 million cars and light trucks sold. While the numbers are increasing, dealers caution that the industry hasn't returned to its glory days. In 2005 it sold 17 million cars and light trucks. At the current pace, the industry won't reach that figure until 2016.