Chattanooga auto dealer Ken Hunt says the car business is an early barometer of the economy's direction, and he's looking at a double-digit sales gain this year after a solid 2010.
To get out in front of an improving business climate, Hunt Nissan has finished a $900,000 upgrade at the Chapman Road dealership, he said.
"It was a major investment to get us into the 21st century," he said, projecting annual sales will rise between 10 percent and 20 percent.
Tuesday, Japanese automaker Nissan reported U.S. new vehicle sales in February climbed 32 percent over the same month a year ago.
Jesse Toprak, an auto analyst for TrueCar.com, said Nissan posted the best performance last month among Japan's car companies. While Toyota had a big jump, 42 percent, the carmaker a year ago had sharply curbed production in the wake of safety questions, he said.
Toprak said while Nissan was a little more aggressive with incentives for car buyers, its product lineup stands out.
"It's product design and image [are] seen as more sporty - more of a driver's car," he said.
Hunt, too, cited Nissan's product. For example, he said, the new Juke mini-crossover is a surprise success.
"We can't get enough," Hunt said.
Nissan's all-electric Leaf is scheduled for local deliveries in April, he said.
"We've got a dozen or so in the pipeline," the dealer said.
Part of the new investment at the dealership included four charging adapters for the Leaf along with employee training and equipment, he said.
In addition, Hunt upgraded the dealership's showroom.
"We really took it and made it look as brand new as you possibly could on a 30-year-old building," he said. Hunt said the dealership's expansive lot was seal coated and restriped as well.
Additionally, he said he has opened a rental car department. Plans are to start with internal customers, such as those getting service or sales patrons.
"Eventually, I believe it will turn into a profit center and compete with local rental car companies for retail business," Hunt said.
In his plans is an express car wash and service offerings such as quick oil changes, he said.
"We've got a lot of property here," he said. "That will take added investment, too."
Hunt said the dealership in 2010 had its best overall year since he opened it in 2002 with new and used sales totaling 20 percent higher.
January sales at the dealership were 40 percent above a year ago, while February was trending in that direction as well, Hunt said.
Hunt said he's hiring more people as well. He expects to end the year with 48 employees, up 20 percent.