Central Ohio new-car buyers have rediscovered Chrysler, an automaker whose new designs and generous incentives have sent its local sales rising.
In the first half of this year, three of the company's brands -- Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep -- were among the four with the greatest percentage improvement in sales compared with the same period a year ago.
"For the first time (in years), Chrysler has product coming out that is competitive," said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "It's right up there with the best that's out there right now."
The other top performer locally based on percentage gains was Kia, which has strung together several years of big gains. Rounding out the top five was Audi, according to registration data gathered by Autoviewonline.com.
While the names of those big gainers might have been a surprise, the overall sales leader for the first half of the year was not. Honda maintained its long-standing position on top with 6,887 new vehicles sold. The company gets strong local support from the thousands of people who work at assembly plants in Marysville and East Liberty, Ohio.
Next on the volume chart was Chevrolet, followed by Ford, Toyota and Kia.
Central Ohio dealers sold 36,573 new cars from January to June, up 15 percent from the previous year. The total includes sales in Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield, Licking, Madison, Morrow, Pickaway and Union counties.
Sales were also up about 15 percent for the country, as the industry continues a gradual recovery from the economic downturn.
It was only three years ago that Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. At the time, some auto analysts wondered whether the company was strong enough to survive.
Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy with a new partnership with Italy-based Fiat. Since then, Fiat has acquired a majority stake and made its mark on design and marketing.
"We've been given a lot taller goals to hit," said Justin Harmon, a manager at Bob Caldwell Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram on the North Side.
The sales goals come from Chrysler itself, whose staff members are in almost daily contact with individual stores, he said. This is in contrast to the months after the Fiat agreement, when dealers complained that they were getting no guidance about strategy or marketing.
At Bob Caldwell, one of the stars of the recent surge is the Jeep Liberty, a midsize SUV that got exterior and interior tweaks. The cosmetic changes have not altered the vehicle's all-terrain DNA, said salesman Nick Loscocco. "You can go anywhere and do anything and not get stuck," he said.
Dodge is up 68 percent with central Ohio buyers. In this case, Dodge includes Ram trucks. Autoviewonline.com continues to group the two together, though Chrysler has regarded Ram as a separate brand since 2009.
The most important new Dodge, the Dart compact, has just arrived, and its sales will play a key role in the brand's fortunes for the rest of 2012. Though the Dart gets its name from an old Dodge model, this car represents everything new about the company's partnership with Fiat and its fresh emphasis on competing in the small-car segments.
"Finally, we have something that can compete with the Honda Civic," Harmon said.
Chrysler's rise is largely because of product improvements but also because of strong incentives, Gutierrez said. He lists the Chrysler 200 sedan as an example of how incentives have helped prop up some otherwise middling performers. The model comes with rebates of up to $3,000 or interest rates as low as 1.9 percent.
Honda continued its dominance of the local market in the first half of 2012. The brand's sales rose 18 percent, and it sold 2,000 more vehicles than the closest runner-up.
The company is coming off a year when its sales were hurt by supply problems stemming from natural disasters in Asia.
This year, the supply problems are largely fixed, and the brand also has a new design for one of its top sellers, the CR-V crossover. The CR-V, assembled in East Liberty, got an updated look in December and has been a hit with customers.
While overall new-car sales are rising, some brands are having a rough year.
Sales of Cadillacs, the 20th-most popular brand in the region, were down 22 percent during the first half of the year. Buick, which ranks 15th, is down 10 percent. Mitsubishi, the 24th-most popular brand, has fallen 16 percent.
Those problems are not just a local phenomenon. Cadillac and Mitsubishi are both down across the country, while Buick sales are essentially flat.
Cadillac is "basically reinventing themselves," said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com. The brand has discontinued several models and is preparing for a major marketing push with the Olympics.
She also said she has concerns that Buick might be falling short in its attempt to appeal to younger buyers.
One challenge for Buick and Cadillac is, they are being compared with their 2011 local sales that were way up from the previous year. Next year, it will be the Chrysler brands trying to hold onto the same kind of momentum.
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