Sales of new cars and trucks in Hamilton County rose nearly 13 percent over last year during the first quarter, marking the best start for local vehicle sales in five years.
Chattanooga dealers sold 1,390 new cars and 1,637 new trucks to Hamilton County residents during the first three months of the year, according to vehicle registration totals released Monday by the Hamilton County Clerk's Office.
Sales of new vehicles were still more than 35 percent below the peak reached before the recession hit in 2007. But dealers said more shoppers are coming into their showrooms this year and sales representatives are turning more lookers into buyers.
Todd Dyer, general manager for Marshal Mize Ford, said sales for 2012 could grow to rival the peak year of 2007.
"This kind of start is usually a very good indicator for the summer," he said.
Despite higher gas prices, trucks continue to outsell cars in Hamilton County.
"In the past, higher gas prices tended to slow truck sales, but this go around gas prices don't seem to be affecting truck sales," Dyer said.
Mike Thornton, general manager for Mountain View Ford, said dealers benefited this winter by the unseasonably warm weather.
"When it's 70 degrees in February, rather than 20 to 30 degrees with snow, people are more apt to come out and buy a car," he said. "We don't know if we pulled in some sales early as a result, but I think the whole year looks to be better."
At Hunt Nissan, Ken Hunt said he is enjoying double-digit sales gains for both new and used vehicles "and we're expecting a very strong year" with sales projected to be up as much as 20 percent for all of 2012.
Corey Choate, general manager for Economy Honda, said his dealership is setting new sales records this year with vehicle sales up by more than 16 percent in the first quarter.
"Obviously, the new car market is better this year because consumers are more confident about the economy and there is still a lot of pent-up demand from when sales were down during the recession," Choate said. "But we've gotten aggressive on our prices and we're going to do everything we can to take care of our customers so they don't go to another market and buy elsewhere."
Economy Honda boosted its sales last year to a record high and expects even stronger sales in 2012, both for new and used vehicles, Choate said.