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U.S. auto sales plunge in September But local dealers say drop here isn't so bad

U.S. auto sales dropped below 1 million last month for the first time in more than 15 years as some consumers struggled to get financing and others were frightened away from showrooms by bank failures and turmoil on Wall Street.

Americans bought 964,873 vehicles in September, the lowest sales figure since February 1993, according to Autodata Corp. and the automotive Web site. Sales fell 27 percent compared with September 2007, with every major brand but General Motors Corp. reporting drops of at least 24 percent.

Despite the gloomy national picture, some local auto dealers interviewed Wednesday said their own sales conditions have not changed markedly. But they said customers seeking car loans are facing stricter requirements from lenders than a few months ago.

Ford Motor Co. reported its worst sales month this year, recording a 34 percent drop in U.S. sales in September compared to a year ago. GM's year-over-year sales fell 15.6 percent, despite the offer of employee pricing for all. Chrysler's sales dropped 33 percent, Nissan's fell 37 percent, Toyota USA's plunged 32 percent and Honda fell 24 percent.

Buyers continued to favor small fuel-efficient cars over trucks and sport utility vehicles. Ford's truck sales were down 39 percent, for example, while car sales dropped 19 percent.

Even before the credit crisis struck, auto manufacturers and their dealers were coping with the effects of high gasoline prices and a weakening U.S. economy.

Western New York dealers' experiences vary somewhat, but some liken the region's new-vehicle market to its housing market, avoiding the large ups and downs that some other parts of the country have endured.

Frank Downing Jr., president of Towne Automotive Group, said his sales were up about 10 percent for the year until they dropped off in September. But he doesn't blame a lack of customer access to credit for the decline.

"We really haven't seen it," he said of the credit crunch. "We've seen traffic slow down because people are concerned about the market in general."

Paddock Chevrolet reported its new-car sales rose 1 percent in September from last year, while its used-vehicle sales rose 11.7 percent. Duane Paddock, the dealership's principal, said his new-car sales were relatively strong but were being compared to an exceptionally robust month a year ago.

How have some local dealers avoided the steep sales drop-offs some others are encountering?

"A lot has to do with the individual dealers' portfolios that they've built up with banking institutions," Paddock said.

Scott Bieler, president of West Herr Automotive Group, one of the largest dealer groups in the country, said his customers were getting loans financed at about the same rate as a year ago. Lending institutions have told him that Western New York tends to have a low rate of delinquencies.

Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book and, said the credit crunch won't preclude customers with good credit scores from securing loans. Those with credit problems might find it harder to get a loan or have to pay a higher rate, he said.

Credit scores aside, Nerad said, consumers' uneasiness about the economy could keep them from trying to make deals. In times of economic unrest, he said, "people tend to put their wallets away."

Paddock said he has spoken to some customers who wanted to hold off on buying for now. Others who intended to wait decided an offer was too good to pass up, he said.

"The biggest change is you just have to prepare to put some cash down," Paddock said, referring to lenders' stricter requirements these days.

James Basil, president of Joe Basil Chevrolet, said his dealership in the past couple of months has seen an increase in sales of the Silverado and TrailBlazer. While SUV and truck sales nationally suffered when gas prices spiked, Basil said there is still demand for vehicles that can carry several passengers and have good towing capacity.

And while lenders' parameters for loans have tightened, he said he still sees customers who are able to meet the requirements to make deals.

Current statistics for new-vehicle sales across Western New York are not yet available. But in August, the number of new cars and trucks sold dropped 11 percent from a year ago, according to the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association. For the first eight months of 2008, sales were up 2.3 percent from the same period in 2007.

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.


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