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Car sales zoomed to a record in 1999 for Niagara Frontier dealers, fueled by a relatively healthy economy and by automakers' aggressive leasing and financing programs.

"They're moving vehicles like they're going out of style," said Trey Barrett, marketing director for the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association Inc.

Through November, area dealers had sold 67,304 new cars and light trucks, according to the NFADA sales survey. That beat 1998's total of 63,366 by 6 percent, with a month still to go. December figures -- on pace to put 1999's total above 70,000 -- will be complete in mid-January.

The previous highest-selling year, 1997, reached 65,982 light vehicles -- including cars, pickups, minivans and sport-utility vehicles, according to the NFADA. The survey includes about 70 dealers in metropolitan Buffalo.

The high local sales mirror a national trend.

The strong U.S. economy and low interest rates propelled sales of 16.8 million light vehicles, shattering the previous record of 16.06 million in 1986. Once the final tally is complete, the year-end total could reach 17 million, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association in McLean, Va.

"That's pretty amazing, coming on the back of a good year (in 1998)," NADA chief economist Paul Taylor said.

At Gary Pontiac in Buffalo, sales were helped by the absence of a General Motors strike -- a factor in 1998 -- the introduction of the restyled 2000 Bonneville and by lease programs that minimize the monthly payment.

"There's been a lot of activity -- the manufacturer's lease programs are strong," General Manager Peter Paganelli said.

At Kane Doyle Motors Inc. in Kenmore, manufacturer lease programs helped sell 1,200 Jeeps in '99 -- more than double the total for 1998, Sales Manager Henry Downes said.

"Eighty percent of our business is leasing," he said.

Jeep's current program is a $239 monthly payment on a Cherokee Sport, sticker priced at $23,900, Downes said. "A lot of times now we're taking people from a car and putting them into a sport-utility vehicle."

Jeep's regional dealers posted a sales of increase of 72 percent, to 3,422 units in the first 11 months.

The leap was one of the largest among American-nameplate manufacturers, but other incumbent favorites also put up large numbers. Chevrolet sold 11,692 units through November, up 12.9 percent. Ford sales rose 6 percent to 17,780 and Dodge rose 20 percent to 5,795 sales.

While American manufacturers tried to top each other's lease programs, newer Korean companies carved themselves a larger chunk of the small-car market by aiming at value-conscious buyers.

Hyundai sales leaped to 697 in the first 11 months, compared with 263 in the comparable period in 1998, NFADA said. The increase was the result of a second Hyundai dealership opening in the Southtowns and the automaker's introduction of a five-year warranty with bumper-to-bumper coverage.

"It all comes back to the warranty," Northtown Hyundai general manager Joe Hurley said. The Amherst dealership saw sales increase more than 50 percent, aided by low-priced products like the entry level Accent, at $9,000.

The lengthy warranty, coupled with a low-interest financing program, appealed to value-conscious buyers looking to lock in the benefits of ownership. It also helped dispel reliability worries, Hurley said.

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