Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Stathi Floor adjusts his rearview mirror in his recently purchased car at the Ken Garff Nissan dealership in Salt Lake Saturday.

Utahns are increasingly losing jobs, forking over more money at the grocery store, struggling to pay mortgages — and buying new Nissans.

At a time when overall auto sales are down nationwide, Utah auto dealers have taken a hit, and they've had to make changes. Mark Miller of Mark Miller Auto Group in Salt Lake City says vehicle sales overall were down about 10 to 15 percent in August from a year ago. And dealers say Chrysler's and Ford's U.S. sales were down further because they make so many trucks and SUVs — vehicles some drivers traded for more fuel-efficient models when gasoline exceeded $4 a gallon earlier this summer.

"We're watching our expenses more closely than we have in the past, but business actually is not that bad," Miller said. "It could be way worse."

His stores sold 209 Toyotas last month. "That's a pretty good month for us," he said. Subaru sales also have been doing well, and General

Motors vehicle sales picked up as the company offered consumers its employee discount.

Nissan auto sales went up nationwide about 14 percent in August, and at Ken Garff Nissan in Salt Lake City, they were up 17 percent compared to August 2007, general sales manager Rob Messer said.

"We are looking to downgrade our car," said Heather Blackburn, who came into the dealership Friday to comparison-shop the fuel-efficient Versa. With the economic downturn looking like it might stay awhile, she and her husband want a different car, she said. "We want a lower monthly payment, better gas mileage."

Overall, U.S. auto sales last month were down 15.5 percent compared with August 2007, according to the American International Automobile Dealers Association. Sales are down more than 11 percent for the year to date.

Chrysler LLC's U.S. sales dropped more than 34 percent, Ford's by 26.5 percent, Toyota's by 9.4 percent and Honda's by 7.3 percent.

Chrysler and Ford blamed their declining U.S. sales on their truck and SUV-dominated lines.

Sales of the Mini Cooper, however, rose 35 percent in August, the automobile dealers' association said.

Messer said Nissan also saw a rush on its fuel-efficient Sentras and Versas: "They pretty much cleared out in a month."

Nevertheless, the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck was the nation's No. 1 selling vehicle last month, the dealers' association said.

Messer offered some perspective, at least for Utah. "We're outdoorsy people," he said. "We still need something to pull our boats with."

The rest of the Top 10 national sellers was a mix, including the Ford F-Series, Dodge Ram and GMC Sierra trucks, the Toyota Camry and Corolla, Honda Accord and Civic, Chevrolet Impala and Nissan Altima.

The association said light-truck sales went up 20 percent between July and August. Last month's No. 1 seller for the Toyota Denver region was the Tundra truck, two Utah dealerships said.

Brent Brown Toyota sold 38 Tundras last month, general manager Larry Terry said. "That's a lot."

"People are starting to come back to buying the trucks and buying the SUVs, because there's been so many good deals out there," Terry said. "The manufacturers are just putting huge rebates on them — rebates that we've never seen before."

His new and used car sales were down about 10 percent in August, compared with a year ago, but he's seeing some turnaround. Chevrolet and Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep stores have been selling used cars relatively well.

But Nissan still bucks overall trends, with a 14 percent sales increase in August, compared with a year ago, the dealers' association said. That's helped by the company giving dealers incentives, and by offering sales staff a couple of hundred bucks extra for every vehicle sold within a time frame, Messer said.

South Jordan resident Stathi Floor bought a Nissan Maxima last week. His lease on another Nissan was up, so he bought one. His wife also upgraded her Nissan last month.

"This is our fifth Nissan," Floor said. "We just like them."

The dealers' association believes sales trends will head into positive territory for other international auto companies as well, as consumer confidence appears to be on the mend.

Messer agrees. "The economy can affect the car business. But the reality is ... we're a car society in the United States."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com