Noblesville Chrysler dealer Kevin Kahlo has reason to smile these days.
This week, Chrysler reported a 34-percent increase in U.S. sales in March compared to the same month a year ago, helping the auto industry post its best quarter since early 2008.
“It’s fun to be a car dealer again,” Kahlo said.
New car sales nationally rose about 13 percent last month as consumers energized by an improving job market replaced aging vehicles and took advantage of cheap financing. Chrysler sold 163,381 cars in the United States during March.
Chrysler attributed its solid performance to strong sales of Fiat small cars and Chrysler sedans. Fiat sales hit 3,712 compared to just 500 last March, and sales of the Chrysler 200 midsize sedan more than doubled during the month, to 14,914.
Kahlo and fellow Chrysler dealer Tom O’Brien, which has locations on the north side of Indianapolis and in Greenwood, say the Jeep Grand Cherokee is their biggest seller, though.
Sales of the Grand Cherokee rose 43 percent nationally in March, to almost 14,096.
“On the Grand Cherokee, we’ve been seeing trade-ins we’ve never seen before,” said Tom O’Brien Jr., vice president of Tom O’Brien Chrysler Jeep. “BMW, Mercedes … they’re high-end trade-ins.”
Year-over-year sales in March at Tom O’Brien surged 75 percent at its Greenwood dealership and 50 percent at its location on East 96th Street.
Tom O’Brien has a Fiat showroom in Greenwood, where sales of the compact are lagging, O’Brien said. But that could change if gas prices continue to climb, he noted.
General Motors Corp., boosted by the Chevrolet Cruze and the Sonic subcompact, reported a 12-percent increase in March sales. The carmaker sold a total of 231,052 vehicles during the month.
Locally, Bill Estes Chevrolet at Interstate 465 and Michigan Road posted a 25-percent increase.
“The new-car activity is back,” Estes said. “I don’t know if it’s all the way back, but it’s better than the past few years.”
Nationally, new-car sales were up for almost all major manufacturers in March.
Ford Motor Co. posted at 5-percent gain during the month, with 223,418 vehicle sales. Sales of the compact Ford Focus rose 64 percent.
Hyundai Motor Co. hit a monthly U.S. sales record of 69,728 vehicles, up 13 percent from a year earlier. Kia sold 57,505 cars in the United States in March, its best month ever and up 30 percent from last year.
Toyota sales surged 11.2 percent, giving the company its best March since 2008. Nissan Motor Co. had its best month in company history, with 136,317 vehicle sales.
Subaru had a record March for U.S. sales and Volkswagen had its best March since 1973.
Honda was the only automaker to see a decline in March, with sales falling 7.7 percent.
With the nationwide average for gas approaching $4 per gallon, small cars remain the catalyst for sales. Compact and subcompact models combined to account for 23 percent of U.S. cars sales in March, according to consulting firm LMC Automotive.
“Clearly as gas prices go up and as there’s a bit of volatility in gas prices, that’s driving consumers to look for those kinds of [smaller] options when they buy a vehicle," Don Johnson, GM’s U.S. sales chief, told Bloomberg News.
The average age of vehicles on U.S. roads has risen to nearly 11 years, the highest on record. Many of those vehicles are SUVs that were sold in the late 1990s. Rising fuel prices, combined with lower interest rates, have drawn consumers into showrooms to seek more fuel-efficient replacements.
Chrysler dealers have reason to be even more optimistic as the new Dodge Dart, which gets roughly 40 miles per gallon, is expected to arrive in showrooms in late May.
For Kahlo, a glut of new inventory is no longer an issue like it was in recent years.
“I wish they could build them quicker,” he said.