Car sales driven by fuel costs

Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Salesman Ray Fulcher (from left) shows cars to Leif Holmqvist and Alexander Wennstam at the Gerald Jones Honda dealership Wednesday. Fuel efficiency is a priority with many car buyers.

A year ago, Brian Winters' lot at Gerald Jones Honda was packed with customers trying to cash in their clunkers.


Many car dealers were hoping the popular government program would be the shot in the arm the struggling auto industry needed. For many, the program was the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal 2009.

But sales are looking up this year, according to five large Augusta-Aiken area auto dealers, who sell brands such as Chevrolet, Honda, Hyundai and Dodge.

"We're seeing some pretty good business, and August looks like it's going to be another good month," said Winters, general manager at Gerald Jones Honda in Martinez. He added that through July sales were up 22 percent compared to a year ago.

Last summer, Cash for Clunkers let people trade in their gas guzzlers for a voucher of $3,500 or $4,500 toward a fuel-efficient vehicle.

Fuel efficiency remains a priority, several dealers said, particularly when prices at the pump rise. But consumers are still buying larger trucks and sport utility vehicles either out of need or desire.

"Even in hard times people in construction need a truck. There will always be truck buyers," said Lynn Brisson, the owner of Triangle Dodge Chrysler Jeep in Graniteville. "I think there are more need buyers in this economy than emotional buyers, which used to be the case."

Richard Pendarvis, owner of Pendarvis Chevrolet in Edgefield, S.C., estimated that 85 percent of his business comes from trucks or larger sport utility vehicles. Those sales are up about 50 percent through July compared to the year before, he said.

Cash for Clunkers helped Gordon Chevrolet get through a rough patch, and now vehicle sales are trending upward, said Adam Logemann, the dealership's general manager.

He said the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, which gets 32 mpg, is one of the most popular cars on the lot -- and for Chevy across the country.

Gas prices are averaging about $2.62 a gallon in the Augusta-Aiken metro area, about 20 cents more than a year ago, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report.

Sales of larger vehicles tend to slow when gas hits $3 a gallon, said Todd Torchia, general manager and partner at Taylor Hyundai.

Winters said he has noticed the same trend.

"Anytime the price of fuel fluctuates upward we see an increase of sales in vehicles that get good mileage," he said. "I think especially with younger buyers they tend to lean more toward the higher gas mileage vehicles."