Hispanic dealers for domestic automobile brands in many markets are riding the momentum of 2010. Dealers say they're making sales because manufacturers offer more attractive and more technologically advanced products, and the credit crunch that made it difficult for buyers to get car loans has eased.
At the same time, several factors are contributing to changes in buyers' habits: Fluctuating oil prices make fuel-efficient vehicles more attractive, the lingering effects of the Japan earthquake and tsunami are bringing consumers back to domestic brands and the declining availability of used vehicles is a boon for new car sales.
But after the blows of 2009 nobody is quite yet ready to celebrate. "We were humbled. Those of us who managed not to board up our windows are operating leaner and meaner," said Marion Luna Brem, owner of Love Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Alice and Corpus Christi, Texas.
Figures tell part of the story. TrueCar.com, a California-based source of industry trend information, found that Hispanic car buyers preferred Toyota, at 19.5 percent, followed by Honda at 13.7 percent and Nissan at 11.9 percent. The top domestic brands were Chevrolet at 9.4 percent and Ford right behind at 9.3 percent. The top five vehicles purchased were Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford F Series; and the brands with the highest growth among Hispanic buyers from 2009 to 2010 were Buick, Hyundai, Cadillac, Kia and GMC.
However, Toyota sales eroded in some product areas with the earthquake and tsunami. The company posted an 11 percent increase in vehicle sales during the first quarter but decreases in March of 1.2 percent for Toyota passenger cars and 20.4 percent for light trucks. Sales for fuel-efficient models were up: a 57.8 percent increase from March 2010 for Scion and a 42.5 percent increase for TMS hybrids.
The post-tsunami panic that initially struck U.S. automakers has for the most part subsided. Rather than turn to other parts suppliers, thus risking quality control, they moved the parts they had to where they were most needed.
In San Antonio, Clarence Kahlig, president of North Park Toyota and North Park Lexus, said that despite the quake his Toyota sales were up 20 percent so far in 2011 over last year. The hot models are Camry, Corolla, Tundra, RAV4 and Prius -- but the Lexus RX and ES 300 are even hotter. "Our Lexus sales are ahead of the national average," Mr. Kahlig said. "We average about 200 units a month."
Toyota of North America has said it will ramp up production to 70 percent of normal levels in June, compared with 30 percent in May. Some models -- including Camry and Corolla -- are scheduled to return to full production in June. The Prius v, unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show, will be delivered to U.S. dealers in the fall.
On the domestic side, "In 2011, we're healthy, the inventory looks good and we're on top of the hill again," said David Ferraez, owner and president of Green Brook Buick GM in Green Brook, N.J. "I'm very positive about the next six months, next year and the next two years."
It's a big change from the downturn. "Now all of a sudden I'm one of the top dealers in the Northeast with Buick," he said.
About 65 percent of other buyers are giving up foreign cars, compared with 10 percent before the downturn. The difference, Mr. Ferraez said, is a better product. The Buick LaCrosse and Regal, he said, "are pretty much jumping out of showrooms." On the GMC side, the Acadia crossover "is hot as a firecracker."
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