SUVs, muscle cars help auto industry maintain momentum

DETROIT — Americans again bought vehicles that sit up high and come loaded with features like backup cameras and smartphone capabilities in June. Horsepower was also in; gas-sipping not so much.

SUVs of all size continued to fly off dealer lots. Sales of the larger Ford Explorer rose 30 percent, Nissan’s small SUV Rogue posted a 54 percent jump, and sales of the Jeep Cherokee gained 39 percent.

Total sales rose 3.9 percent over last June to 1.48 million, according to Autodata Corp. For the first half of the year, sales gained 4.4 percent to 8.5 million.

Buoyed by the momentum, the National Automobile Dealers Association last week raised its full-year sales forecast to 17.2 million vehicles from just under 17 million. The last time auto sales topped 17 million was in 2001.

Ron Valencia, general sales manager at King Auto Center in Lihue, said that generally tracks with what he is seeing on Kauai. Sales are up compared to the same time last year, driven by mostly smaller SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, which is the dealership’s best seller. Honda’s new compact crossover HR-V is also popular.

Car sales are about even with what they’ve been.

“When the economy was a bit slower, people were hanging onto their cars longer. Now that things appear to be better, people are getting rid of their older vehicles and upgrading to something new,” Valencia said.

King Auto Center carries a lineup of new Chrysler, Dodge, Honda, Jeep and Ram vehicles.

Most automakers reported gains for June, led by Nissan with an increase of 13 percent. General Motors’ sales fell, largely because the company cut back on sales to rental-car companies.

Consumers are finding a number of reasons to buy, including an improved job market, low interest rates, a robust stock market and low gas prices. Automakers are also helping themselves by introducing new vehicles faster and loading them up with desirable features.

At Kuhio Auto Group, General Sales Manager Aaris Berry said that car sales have dipped slightly, but overall numbers are up due to an increase in truck sales, in keeping with the national trend.

“Fuel costs have gone down quite a bit, and trucks are more fuel efficient than ever,” Berry said.

The Ford F-150 is Kuhio’s top seller.

High-volume sales of SUVs priced in the low-to-mid $30,000 range are boosting transaction prices, said Larry Dominique, executive vice president, industry solutions, for TrueCar.com.

Demand for SUVs is taking a bite out of car sales. Sales of the midsize Ford Fusion dropped 8 percent last month, while sales of Chevy’s compact Cruze slipped 13 percent. Dealers offered promotions in June to clear some smaller cars off their lots. Kia, for example, was offering zero-percent financing for up to 66 months and up to $1,500 on Optima and Forte sedans.

The decline in car sales is partly due to lower gas prices. According to AAA, the average price for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. Wednesday was $2.76, compared with $3.67 on July 1, 2014.

Muscle hasn’t lost its appeal. Sales of the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger all rose. Ford sold 11,719 Mustangs, a 54 percent gain and the performance car’s best June since 2007.

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