Isles' retail auto sales rebounding

After a six-year slump, local dealers are seeing more interested consumers

By Rick Daysog

Retail sales of new cars and trucks in Hawaii rose 4.3 percent in the first half of this year, in what may signal the end of a six-year string of lower auto sales.

According to the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association, a total of 20,018 new cars and trucks were sold during the first six months of this year, up from 19,288 in the year-earlier period.

"I think 1996 will be a turning point," said Eric Miyasaki, president and chief executive officer of Nissan Motor Corp. in Hawaii. "I believe the consumers are coming back and are shopping a little more."

Retail truck sales showed the largest proportional increase during the first half, rising 20.6 percent to 3,689 vehicles from 3,060 in the first half of 1995. Retail car sales, meanwhile, were up a mild 1.2 percent in the first half to 16,419 from 16,228.

Domestic car and truck sales were up a healthy 9 percent to 10,511 while import car and truck models dipped 0.5 percent to 9,597.

Based on the first half results, retail car and truck sales would likely increase between 3 percent and 4 percent to about 42,000 units, Miyasaki said. That would make it the first year since 1989 where car sales posted higher sales volume.

Miyasaki credited the improving local economy. With higher tourism arrivals and increased business confidence, more consumers are visiting new car lots, he said.

But not all segments are showing improvements.

Fleet car sales were down 37.5 percent in the first half to 10,730 from 17,157 in the year-earlier half.

Most fleet sales represent new car registrations by daily rental car agencies in Hawaii and do not reflect sales to local consumers. This category is off sharply as operators of the rental car agencies are holding onto their models for a much longer period than they did in the past.

Dave Chun, president of Honolulu Ford on Ala Moana, said business at his Kakaako dealership hasn't been as good as he would like but he expects it to improve in the second half as Hawaii's business climate rebounds.

Chun noted that Ford Motor Co.'s recent decision to raise prices for its popular Explorer sport utility vehicle and redesigned F-150 pickup hasn't had much of an affect on the local company's sales volume.

The F-150 is the biggest-selling vehicle in the United States and the Explorer ranks third. Combined, the two models accounted for about a quarter of Ford's nationwide sales in the first half.

"It just seems like we are seeing more people with more interest," Chun said.

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