SALT LAKE CITY — Recovery after Japan's 2011 tsunami and the number of aging cars on the road are fueling a surge in U.S. and Utah car sales.
Craig Bickmore, executive director of New Car Dealers of Utah, said dealers are feeling confident and 2012 is going well for the industry.
"Things are rebounding," he said. "This year is better than last year both nationally and locally."
Before the recession, car sales in the nation were approximately 17 million vehicles per year, Bickmore said. That number fell to 9 million, and this year, sales are on track to land between 13.5 million and 14 million.
"That's quite a resilient comeback," Bickmore said.
According to the Utah Tax Commission, sales for both new and used vehicles increased during the first months of 2012. Sales for new vehicles were 6,742 in January, 7,416 in February and 8,534 in March. That represents a quarterly increase of 4,342 new cars over 2011 totals.
For used vehicles, sales in January were 12,128 compared to 14,703 in February and 15,114 in March, a quarterly increase of 3,321 used cars over 2011.
In April, the New York Times reported that every major automaker, with the exception of Honda, saw increased sales during the first quarter of 2012 compared to the same period in 2011. The Times reported that automakers planned to increase production to meet demand as a result of the industry's unexpectedly strong performance. Second quarter figures have yet to be released.
Joey Burns, general sales manager for Ken Garff Honda, said 2012 is especially positive for sellers of Japanese models after the 2011 tsunami shut down supply of new models. He said last year, trends were beginning to turn around from the recession when the disaster struck.
"We had a real big shortage on new cars," he said. "We were basically forced to get into the used car business."
The year was complicated further, Burns said, by delivery congestion after production resumed. He said dealerships had taken a lot of back orders and ports were full of shipments waiting to be delivered.
"The transports couldn't get them out fast enough," he said.
Mark Miller, chairman of Mark Miller Dealerships, said inventory at his Toyota dealership was down to one-third of normal levels. He said the supply of new cars has only just begun to even out.
"We're up 38 percent in new car sales compared to last year," he said. "We're finally getting inventory."
Bickmore said in Utah a combination of improved financing, affordability and an aging fleet on the roads has contributed to the improving trends in car sales. He said after sales dropped during the recession, the average age for cars on the road reached 11 years, which means a lot of owners in need of an upgrade.
"All the factors are really lining up," he said.
Herriman resident Brad Kroll was out browsing for cars Friday. He said he planned to buy a car next year because the three he owned were showing their advanced age, like the 1986 Mazda he was driving with more than 400,000 miles.
"Most of my vehicles are like 20 years old and I'm ready to start buying," Kroll said.
Miller also mentioned the age of cars as a factor in increased sales.
Burns said he's seen an improvement in financing, especially in the past year. He said since 2008 lenders have been hesitant to take on subprime credit scores, but in the past few months borrowers have had more success.
He also said that customers fall into two categories: need-based and want-based. People in need of a new car due to an aging vehicle or a growing family still outnumber those just looking to upgrade, he said, but the amount of want-based customers is slowly returning to 2005 levels.
Riverton resident Jay Fleming was shopping for a car at Ken Garff Honda Thursday. He said he was looking for a used car for his daughter, who is moving away from home to attend Utah Valley University in the fall and won't be able to continue using the family car.
The economy hadn't played a factor in his family's decision to look for cars, Fleming said. His decision would be based on safety and good gas mileage.
"If you ask (my daughter), it would be color," he said.
The trend in car sales has shifted toward midsize vehicles, Bickmore said, and improved features like gas mileage have made the models attractive to buyers.
"They've made some great strides in the product lines," he said.
Miller said he's seen a similar trend at his dealerships, where demand for environmentally friendly models like the Toyota Prius have outpaced supply.
"We can't get enough Priuses," he said. "I think Salt Lake is becoming more green, more environmentally conscious, so that car is perfect for that."
Burns called the outlook for the year "great." He said the health of the market and a slate of new cars, including a new version of the mid-size Accord and a redesigned Civic, leaves him optimistic.
"We're projecting a very positive finish this year," he said.