Washington auto sales are reviving slowly, new figures from the auto industry show, but even those accelerated sales will leave most local dealers below their historic sales highs.
Third quarter sales in the state are expected to fall well below the same period in 2009 because of the absence this year of the government’s “Cash for Clunkers” incentives. But overall sales for the year are expected to exceed those of 2009 by 7.6 percent, a new forecast from Auto Outlook Inc. predicts.
If that crystal ball vision is correct, Washington buyers will register 128,014 new vehicles in the state this year. That compares with 118,967 last year. But that figure is a steep drop from the state’s best recent new car sales year, 2006, when 205,243 new cars were registered in the state.
“We’re coming back,” said Kerry Bivens, president of Toyota of Puyallup, Pierce County’s largest volume car dealer. “But we’re coming back to the ‘new normal,’ not the highs we saw a couple of years ago.”
While most domestic brands are showing healthy gains during the first six months of the year in Pierce County and Washington, foreign automakers still hold top positions in Washington.
In July, for instance, Toyota beat Ford as the top-selling brand in Pierce County. Toyota held a 17 percent market share in Pierce County registrations in July, according to market research firm Cross-Sell. That compares with Ford’s 13 percent and Chevrolet’s 9.6 percent of the market.
Toyota’s dominance came despite its well publicized issues with accusations of the unintended acceleration this year. Those issues shut down sales of some Toyotas for several weeks and sent Toyota owners back to their dealers for retrofits to their accelerators.
Bivens said that in the long view, the alarm and adverse publicity about the Japanese make were unwarranted.
“Toyota and the government have had some of their best scientists studying these claims, and they’ve yet to confirm one case,” she said.
After the brief sales slowdown, she said, her dealership saw sales rebound. The market warmed up in April and returned to more normal levels later in the year. Cross-Sell data show Toyota of Puyallup sold 119 cars registered in Pierce County in July, 6.5 percent of the Pierce County new car registrations.
The adversity that the safety concerns generated, said Bivens, brought her team of sales people, administrative personnel and mechanics closer together.
“It was a really good team builder,” she said.
In Pierce County, other foreign makes emulated Toyota’s sales successes. Three of the top five brands ranked by sales in Pierce County during July were foreign makes. Toyota was first. Kia held the fourth position and Honda was in fifth. Ford and Chevrolet were in second and third positions.
Across the state, foreign brands are expected to sell the greater share of cars this year. The domestic Big Three – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – are expected to win 26.2 percent of the market in Washington compared with 53.3 percent for Japanese makes, 10.8 percent for European brands and 9.8 percent for Korean automakers, according to Auto Outlook’s predictions.
The memory of $4-plus gasoline two summers ago plus tighter budgets have made smaller vehicles popular in Pierce County. Eighteen percent of new vehicles registered in Pierce County in July were compact cars. Sixteen percent were compact sport utility vehicles.
Top models, however, were a mix of broad-shouldered pickup trucks and fuel-efficient cars, those figures show. Ford’s F-Series pickups were the top sellers in Pierce County in July with 79 units sold. Holding the second spot was the compact Kia Forte with 63 sales. Another pickup, Chevrolet’s C-K series, held the third spot with 53 sales, while Toyota’s fuel-efficient Prius hybrid held down the fourth sales position with 47 sales.