TC auto sales stay on pace

Our annual review of Traverse City auto sales is in and, though there are mild surprises in the details, two facts appear unchanged from last year: the local car market is relatively healthy, and northern Michigan is still Kia country.

The new car and truck sales market in Traverse City is virtually unchanged compared to the same period last year, posting just a two percent drop.

Of the major dealers, none posted an overall sales increase, though the Williams family of dealerships sold the exact same number of new vehicles in the third quarter 2007 as 2006.

Brett Smith, assistant director at the Center for Automotive Research, says Traverse City's sales are "not bad at all, especially in a down market and in Michigan."

The top three selling cars in Traverse City in the third quarter were all Kia models, again bucking national sales trends-no Kia models are in the top 10 of vehicles sold nationally.

Commenting on the strong sales, Williams Owner William Chichester said, "These numbers are showing more consumers are after value and better gas mileage, which is what Kia delivers."

Other local dealers say consumer interest and sales continue to be strong. Mike Marsh, co-owner of the Bill Marsh family of dealerships, said, "We are all in a very good geographic market for auto sales. While we prepared for a down year, 2007 is holding strong."

Marsh pointed to solid sales gains of some particular models, including the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and the Saturn Sky and Saturn Outlook, as major reasons for his dealerships' success.

Otto Belovich, who owns Cherry Capital Cadillac Subaru and Traverse Motors, says hybrid vehicles are also drivers of growth.

"The Toyota hybrids are so strong…you tell people it's hard to get a car and they say 'you're crazy-they're everywhere,' but inventory on some of these popular cars is becoming an issue."

Belovich adds, "I really believe if one Traverse City dealer is doing good, we are all doing good. We're in this together."

Grand Traverse Auto, the largest local Ford dealership, also saw signs of promise, including sales of the Ford Edge crossover, a new vehicle that is already challenging local SUV sales leaders.

The TCBN report only included dealers in the Traverse City (49684 and 49686) zip codes, and did not include other leading area dealers such as Mercedes of Traverse City in Acme, where General Manager Christopher Opas says, unlike local peers, sales are up considerably.

"We're tracking to have another double-year increase in overall sales, led by a very diverse product mix, ranging from the new C-Class all the way through the SUVs," said Opas.

In trucks, Chevy continued its local dominance over Ford, selling nearly twice as many units as Ford in the third quarter. The surprise gainer in truck sales was the Toyota Tundra, which has now surpassed Dodge in overall sales in Traverse City.

Auto analyst Smith says Toyota is getting more aggressive with Tundra rebates and advertising and those investments are paying off.

In the used car and truck world, the Bill Marsh family of dealerships continues its leadership position, holding 42 percent of the overall local used market.

Used cars and trucks typically represent approximately 40 percent of a dealer's overall sales.

As for the future, Marsh says he is particularly bullish on Chrysler.

"Though we were concerned a year ago about what would happen with Chrysler's future, we just returned from the national dealer meeting sky high-lots of exciting things in store."BN