Mike Bettenhausen, co-owner of Bettenhausen Fiat, stands next to a 2012 Fiat 500C Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, at 17514 S. Oak Park Ave. in Tinley Park. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 11, 2013 7:38PM
An improving economy, freer-flowing loans and a pent-up demand for more fuel-efficient, tech-savvy vehicles to replace old clunkers drove Americans to buy more new cars and trucks in 2012 than they had since 2007.
Chicago-area auto dealers and some industry experts expect 2013 to be even better.
Sales of new cars and trucks reached 14.5 million last year, an increase of 13 percent from 2011, U.S. automakers reported Thursday. While a great improvement over the dark days of 2008, when GM and Chrysler sought bankruptcy and bailouts, the total still is nearly 10 percent below sales in 2007, as the recession was just beginning, and the peak of 17 million reached in 2005.
“Business is up for a real simple reason,” said Dan Feeny, owner of Feeny Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Elgin. “There’s a lot of older cars on the road.”
Though the Chicago area’s growth appears to have lagged the national surge, prospects look bright for another healthy year, said Dave Sloan, president of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association. Chicago-area sales gained 7.7 percent through November 2012 — the most recent data available.
Chicago typically is slow to exit the car-buying downturn, Sloan said.
Auto research firm Polk predicted even stronger sales this year, forecasting 15.3 million — if Congress can resolve spending cuts and debt limits.
Kelley Blue Book is less optimistic, and forecast sales will slow again in 2013 as consumers get hit with higher Social Security payroll taxes — after a temporary break that lawmakers let lapse.
Americans know how to put off shopping. When the economy slowed, owners made do with their vehicles. The average age of cars and light trucks is at an all-time high of 11.2 years, according to Polk.
Motorists have held on to their new cars and trucks twice as long, on average, than in prior years — six years at the end of 2012 vs. four years at the end of 2011, the Polk report showed.
Buyers had a number of motivations, however.
“Some like to take advantage of low interest rates, some just wanted to update, some had to update, and we had our share of people who just wanted to have fun,” said Cary Bosak, co-owner of the Bosak Auto Group in Northwest Indiana, which saw new-car sales start to pick up late in the first quarter of the year.
After the recession, lenders eased up on credit, said Lonnie Miller, Polk’s vice president of marketing and industry analysis.
“Lenders started allowing 72-month loans at a relatively low interest rate,” Miller said.
Some automakers also offered good deals on leases.
“More than half of my new-car business is leased,” said Michael Hall, salesman at Perillo BMW at 1035 N. Clark St., Chicago. BMW offered 36- to 39-month lease deals that covered maintenance and retained the warranty for the entire lease period.
Hall said shoppers looked for new cars that offered fuel efficiency, safety and new technology — such as an app that enables the car to “read” aloud the driver’s email and text messages.
Terry D’Arcy, owner of three Joliet dealerships, said many trade-ins had 150,000 to 200,000 miles on them, so people were ready to shop for fresh features.
“It’s just time to get into something newer,” he said. “People get tired of looking at the same dashboard after 10 years.”
Contributing: Jenette Sturges, Christin Nance Lazerus, Cindy Wojdyla Cain, Dan Moran, Mike Nolan, David Sharos