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Dealers report small decline in local car sales; First quarter figures about same as last year

New car sales in the region declined 1.1 percent from a year ago in March, and sales for the first quarter were essentially the same as for the same period in 2011.

Franchised new car dealers in the region sold 5,285 units in March, compared with 5,348 a year earlier, according to the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association.

Among brands reporting their sales -- high-selling Chevrolet does not -- Ford led, with 1,253 new units sold by its 14 area dealers during March. Its total was down about 6 percent from a year ago.

Among the 10 leading brands that reported sales in the NFADA statistics, only three recorded an increase from a year ago.

Dodge and Jeep each reported an increase exceeding 30 percent, and Volkswagen had a strong month. VW's three area dealers' combined sales increased 78 percent from a year ago, to 171 units.

Jay Dean, sales manager at Schmitt's Audi Volkswagen in Bowmansville, said Volkswagen's regional first-quarter sales growth of 60 percent from a year ago was better than the brand's national growth of 40 percent in that period.

Dean attributed the local increase to a combination of factors.

Volkswagen has made a stronger push for sales in the U.S. market and introduced the Passat, a mid-sized car for the U.S. market. "It was the right car at the right time, and it sold well right out of the box," Dean said.

The fact that the Passat is made at a U.S. factory, in Tennessee, "has brought in customers that wouldn't previously have put VW on their shopping list" in Western New York, he said.

Dean also pointed to upgrades at local Volkswagen dealers and the brand's lineup of fuel-efficient vehicles amid high gas prices as other factors in the growth.

Ford's regional sales manager, John Schuldt, said Ford's sales were robust in the region he oversees, which is broader than just the NFADA's territory. In the area he covers, Ford sold more than 2,100 new vehicles. "Anytime we do over 2,000 is a great month," he said.

The Fusion, Focus and Escape were all good sellers, Schuldt said. And the automaker has seen a "definite shift" toward car sales from truck sales, both locally and nationally.

Sales in Ford's car segment were about 52 percent of the total, instead of the typical 50-50 split, he said. Gas prices at $4 per gallon influenced the trend.

"We don't see any relief on gas prices coming anytime soon," Schuldt said. "We see that continuing."

For the first three months of 2012, the NFADA said area dealers sold 12,307 units, down less than 1 percent from the same period a year ago.