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State auto dealers say rising gas price not affecting sales

Gasoline prices may be rising but so far that hasn’t made much of an impact on automobile sales. Nor has it impinged on the love affair Mississippians have with big trucks and SUVs. Several dealers around the state report little or no change and are gearing up for the spring/summer season, usually the busiest time for sales.

Started in 1932, Turan-Foley Cadillac, Buick & Chevrolet in Gulfport is one of the state’s oldest dealerships. General sales manager Ken Monroe says business is good and that consumers don’t have to sacrifice style and comfort to drive fuel-efficient cars. It’s not like the old days when Cadillacs got only eight miles per gallon.

“We have a lot of fuel-efficient vehicles. Cadillacs are getting 30 miles per gallon now, the mid-size Chevy Malibu gets 35 and even full-size trucks get 20 miles per gallon,” he said. “You don’t have to be cramped up in a little box to ride well and get good gas mileage.”

He says sales will start picking up in April and May and continue through the summer. Still, he can’t complain and says the dealership sells a good mix of cars and trucks, some heavy duty and diesel burning, too.

Blackburn Motor Company in Vicksburg is another dealership with longevity. The 69-year-old business sells Chrysler, Dodge, Nissan and Jeep and will move into two new facilities on the Interstate 20 frontage road by the end of the year.

“Our business has been pretty steady,” said general sales manager Jeff Hickman. “The last four or five vehicles I’ve sold have been Durangos, Grand Cherokees and full-size trucks. We’re selling everything. SUVs are still selling.”

The most fuel-efficient models the dealership has are the Dodge neon and Nissan Sentra, but Hickman says they don’t sell many of them.

“The public has grown accustomed to gas fluctuations. It’s not like it was in the 1970s when people panicked and bought small cars on impulse,” he said. “I think gas has to get to $2 per gallon and stay there for a year to make much of an impact on buying habits.”

In the Southwest Mississippi town of Gloster, Buster Smith and his dad have been selling Buick and Pontiac cars and GMC trucks for 55 years at R.E. Smith Motor Company.

“We’re still moving them. People still have to ride,” he said. “We live in the suburbs of Baton Rouge — about 50 miles away — and McComb and Natchez so we have to travel to go anywhere. There’s only 900 to 1,000 people in Gloster if everybody’s here at the same time.”

The isolated location is an asset though because Smith sells to the Louisiana area just north of Baton Rouge. He sold three new vehicles to customers from down that way last week.

“We mainly sell trucks. A half-ton, four-wheel drive pickup now gets 18 miles per gallon,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you buy now, it gets good mileage and you don’t have to be scrunched up.”

Smith says he too continues to sell SUVs and doesn’t even stock any Sunfires, Pontiac’s most fuel-efficient car, because they don’t sell.

Currently sales are flat at Aberdeen Ford, says owner Doug Stone, who purchased the 20-year-old dealership in 2002, but sales were good in 2004.

“I think it’s a combination of many things,” he said. “There’s so much negativity in the news with oil being $55 a barrel, the state is broke, people are getting kicked off Medicaid and other things.”

Stone says he still sells the same mix of vehicles, including SUVs, and doesn’t see a rush toward smaller cars like what happened in the ‘70s. “Middle income people are not buying right now, but they’re still buying what they want when they buy.”

In Hattiesburg, Danny Dossett says business is very good at the Dossett Pontiac, Cadillac and GMC dealership. “I have plenty of models that are gas efficient and sales are still holding strong for trucks and SUVs,” he said. “The GMC sport utility is my best seller, and it gets fair gas mileage.”

At All Star Motors in Olive Branch, owner Drew Depriest says people do not want to let go of their big vehicles, and sales of trucks and SUVs may have slowed a little but not much. Also, he’s not selling many of Chevy’s most fuel-efficient model, the Adeo. However, he has noticed that sales are up for used cars.

“Luckily, we’re in two good markets,” he said. “Olive Branch is the fastest growing part of the state and one of the fastest growing in the country. Our store in Greenville is doing well because of the farming economy there. They sell a lot of trucks.”

Reed Estabrook says so far this year business is good at the dealerships his family owns in Pascagoula. They sell Ford, Nissan, Toyota, Lincoln and Mercury brands. Estabrook Ford is the oldest dealership on the Mississippi Coast.

“I haven’t seen gas prices make a concrete difference in sales, but it is generating a lot of interest and is much more on people’s minds. They’re talking about it,” the third-generation auto seller said. “The Ford Company says the magic number is $3 per gallon, and that’s when the price will start impacting buying habits.”

Estabrook says hybrid diesel cars are generating a lot of interest in his area. He sells every Toyota Priuis hybrid he can get and has a waiting list to buy them. Soon he will also have Ford’s hybrid model, the Escape. These models use very little fuel. When the engine is running, it charges the battery so the engine can shut down at a certain point and run the car like a golf cart. He says this type of car typically follows a demographic of environmentally aware, well-educated buyers.

“There aren’t a lot of these cars, particularly in this part of the world. They really push them to the metropolitan East and West Coasts because they are more efficient in stop-and-go city driving,” he said. “There’s not as much benefit here.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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