Auto retailers optimistic for sales rebound this year

After an impressive start to the year, U.S. auto sales slipped 3.7 percent in May — to their slowest pace since last September — due to confusing economic signals, higher gas prices and shortages of Japanese cars and auto parts following the country’s devastating earthquake.

For Fort Lauderdale-based dealership chain AutoNation, the drop was even worse. The largest U.S. dealership chain said Thursday that its new vehicle sales fell 15 percent in May compared with the previous year because so many of its sales — 52 percent — come from Japanese brands.

AutoNation said in a statement that its imported brand sales dropped 30 percent for the month to 7,110, but its Detroit Three sales rose 3 percent to 5,995. Premium luxury sales rose 1 percent to 3,242 for the month, the statement said.

Nationwide, auto sales are still up 14 percent for the year to date, and this year will still likely be better than last, even if the gains aren’t as strong as once expected.

Throughout South Florida, May was a tough month for many showrooms featuring Japanese cars. National reports show that Toyota sales in the U.S. declined by 33 percent last month, with drops of 23 and 9.1 percent respectively of Honda and Nissan.

Inventory and parts have dwindled following the tragic March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that shut some operations there. But production has again geared up, and the outlook is looking better for the summer.

“We’ll be back to normal in the next few months,” said Ernie Sims, general manager of Al Hendrickson Scion, a Coconut Grove-based Toyota dealer. Sims said that because the company had fewer cars than usual, it did not offer special deals. Sales also dropped by half compared to May 2010.

“The incentives were less and we had to be smart in what we sold,” he said.

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