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Area car sales down in May; March tsunami led to a decrease for many Japanese brands

Overall new car sales in May were down slightly in the Buffalo Niagara region, in part because several Japanese brands saw decreased sales due to a lack of inventory caused by the March tsunami in Japan.

Ford Motor Co. had the highest reported sales in the region with 1,062 cars sold, up from 1,050 in April. Chevrolet does not report its sales numbers.

Among all brands, there were 4,258 cars sold in May, compared to 4,285 in April. In May 2010, there were 4,503 vehicles sold, according to self-reported sales numbers collected by the Niagara Frontier Automotive Dealership Association Inc.

The move to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles was evident in May.

Buick, like all General Motors Co. brands, has pushed to increase fuel efficiency, and sales have gone up. There were 133 Buicks sold in March, 168 in April and 174 in May. Jim Murphy, owner of Jim Murphy Buick GMC, is optimistic about the rest of the year.

"We have some great smaller cars, we have cars people want," he said. "We have more products coming in the fall which are more fuel-efficient."

Other smaller vehicles also sold well. Hyundai dealers sold 328 vehicles in May, 36 more than were sold in April. Kia sold 257 vehicles in the Buffalo area in May, 21 more than in April.

But Japanese manufacturers, known for their smaller, fuel-efficient cars, have not seen increases in sales because they do not have the cars to sell.

"(Subaru) has been affected greatly in terms of production numbers," said Tony Farina, West Herr Subaru Kia general manager. "The number of cars we have in inventory has decreased drastically."

There are almost 50 percent fewer Subarus to sell at West Herr than there were 60 days ago, Farina said. Inventory is expected to be low until the first quarter of 2012.

In March, before the tsunami affected inventory, 199 Subarus were sold. The number declined to 152 in April and 112 in May.

Other Japanese dealerships are facing the same problems, said Rob Greenwood, Lia Honda general manager.

"From Honda's standpoint, we just don't have the inventory," he said.

Honda inventory is expected to return to pre-tsunami levels by the end of the summer, he said.

There were 499 Hondas sold in March, with 368 sold in April and 269 in May.

Not all Japanese brands are suffering.

Nissan sales increased by about 50 cars for the month, to 282. Nissan does not have the inventory problems that have plagued other Japanese car manufacturers since few of its cars are manufactured in Japan, said Joe Caldarelli, president at Mike Barney Nissan.

"We've had a few parts inventories, but nothing like that," Caldarelli said. "Our plant is further inland than (other manufacturers)."

Sales have picked up at Mike Barney Nissan since finishing construction about a month ago, Caldarelli said. But he has seen a general softness in the market.

"The whole auto industry has been a little soft the past couple months," he said. "I think locally the whole car industry is going to get better with the weather."

Many car manufacturers are offering deals to encourage people with leases to hold onto their cars because of a lack of inventory, Farina said. But some shoppers have begun looking elsewhere, to different brands or used cars.

Some dealerships have seen an increase in used-car sales, Greenwood said. Lia Honda is selling about 60 used cars a month, he said.

"For years they averaged 20 to 25 used cars a month," he said. "In general, used-car sales are going up because there are so few new cars."

e-mail: mtighe@buffnews.com