Sonic Automotive to buy Hunt Nissan

photo Hunt Nissan is being sold to Sonic Automotive.

Sonic Automotive, one the nation's largest owners of new-car dealerships, plans to grow its footprint in Chattanooga by buying Hunt Nissan.

Ken Hunt, who owns the dealership located off Highway 153, said Wednesday that he is under contract to sell Hunt Nissan to Charlotte, N.C.-based Sonic.

While the deal hasn't closed yet, Hunt said he thinks Sonic will be "a great fit." The company already owns Economy Honda, also located off Highway 153, and BMW of Chattanooga in East Brainerd.

"We assume everything will close well," said Hunt, who declined to comment further at this time.

Hunt said he would not be involved in the business after the deal is finalized for the dealership, which employs 60 people.

Hunt came to Chattanooga in 2002 when he was offered the chance to buy the former United Nissan dealership.

He had run the largest dealership in the world in California for businessman and race car owner Roger Penske before moving to Atlanta in 2000 to oversee the Penske Group of dealerships in the Southeast.

Over the past decade or so, Hunt Nissan has doubled its service and parts customer base and nearly doubled its used vehicle sales.

The number of new Nissans sold rose 36 percent over that period, despite the Great Recession. The dealership's payroll and benefits grew 70 percent as well.

Sonic operates over 100 dealerships across 14 states and 25 major metropolitan markets. It represents about 25 different automotive brands with the majority of its dealerships being luxury and import brands.

In 2013, Sonic earned $81 million on $8.8 billion in sales.

A Fortune 500 company and member of the Russell 2000 Index, Sonic's dealerships provide comprehensive sales and services, including sales of replacement parts, performance of vehicle maintenance, warranty, paint and collision repair services, and arrangement of extended warranty contracts, financing and insurance for its customers.

O. Bruton Smith founded the company in Charlotte. In 1997, the company went public with 20 dealerships.

Last month, Sonic announced it will open a chain of pre-owned vehicle stores, competing with used-car retailers such as CarMax.

Called EchoPark, Sonic's first pre-owned dealership is set to open in Denver this fall. Car prices will be set by a central office, rather than each store, to eliminate haggling.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based AutoNation is the largest dealership owner in the U.S., with 274 new vehicle franchises.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.