Clovis News

Fresno-area auto sales accelerating

Car sales finally are revving up in the Valley.

After struggling through the economic downturn, car dealers in the Fresno area say sales are rising this year -- with some models so popular dealers can't keep them in stock.

Customers are returning to buying new cars after holding off during the recession, car dealers say.

The central San Joaquin Valley probably isn't seeing as huge an increase as other parts of the state, as the area still is suffering economically, said Mark Rapin, president of the Fresno-Clovis New Car Dealers Association and vice president of Freedom Ford in Fresno. The California New Car Dealers Association does not track regional sales in the Valley.

But sales definitely are picking up, he said. Many dealerships are seeing sales increases of at least 20% in February, compared with the same time last year.

Customers are buying small, fuel-efficient cars, along with crossover SUVs that get better mileage than their bulkier precursors.

The supply of certain crossovers -- like the Ford Explorer, Ford Edge and Chevrolet Equinox -- can't keep up with demand. Crossovers are sport-utility vehicles that are built on a car frame instead of a truck frame.

The Equinox, for example, gets 32 miles per gallon and is a big seller at Hedrick's Chevrolet in Clovis.

The dealership is selling between six and eight Equinoxes a month, said general manager Brett Hedrick.

"We could probably sell 10 to 15 a month," if they were available, he said.

It's a similar story at Lithia Ford of Fresno, where February sales almost tripled compared with the same time last year, said sales manager Tony Swertfager.

The dealership has two Edges and two Explorers on the lot, but often they don't have the exact options customers are looking for, he said.

If he had more of the vehicles, he would sell more of them, he said.

"Since the market is finally getting better, a lot of people don't have the patience to wait," Swertfager said. "If we had the inventory, it'd be easier to get their business."

Both the Ford SUVs were redesigned for 2011, and the Explorer is built on a car platform for the first time.

Both can come with MyFord Touch, a technology that has been extremely popular with customers, Swertfager said. The system allows drivers to use voice commands to set the temperature, answer their cell phone and find the lowest nearby gasoline prices.

"Mostly they want the leather and the heated seats if they can get them, all the bells and whistles," he said.

Hedrick said the shortage stems from demand for more fuel-efficient SUVs.

Manufacturers didn't expect the crossover SUVs to be so popular, particularly the Explorer, said Brian Maas, the California New Car Dealer Association's director of government affairs.

"I think they ... underestimated how well that would be accepted in the marketplace, and they just couldn't sell them fast enough," he said.

Companies are ramping up production of those models.

There is no shortage of fuel-efficient cars, however, Maas said. That's because manufacturers have been gradually increasing their fuel efficiency over the years and are ready for customer demand, he said.

Sales and incentives also are driving some sales of the vehicles that don't have shortages, dealers say.

When James and Christina Gulke of Clovis couldn't find the exact 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited they wanted at Fresno Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, they decided they were OK with waiting for it.

"We wanted it fully loaded with all the options," James Gulke said. "We had to order it because there was nothing around with all the options."

It will take about seven weeks for the new vehicle to come in. When it does, it will be complete with cruise control that sets itself to the speed of the car in front of it, a backup camera, and an alarm that goes off if the Cherokee senses it's about to collide with a car in its blind spot.

Other customers wait until new vehicles show up on the lot to get them, Swertfager said. Some customers get the vehicle they want by having their local dealership trade with another dealership that has something different in demand, he said.

Despite the shortages, dealers say they're happy to see an increase in sales.

Swertfager says he has hired five sales workers in the past month.

And Fresno Chrysler also is seeing an increase in customers.

"This is the best in the last four years," president Tim Finegan said of sales. "It's fun again."