AUTO SALES TREND HIGHER AS CONN. PUSHES ELECTRIC VEHICLES
New car sales in Connecticut are outpacing benchmarks through the first three quarters of the year and the state’s largest auto show is expected to cap off a strong year.
“Sales are very good,” said James Fleming, president of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, the Hartford-based trade association of 270 new and used car dealers.
The state rang up $11 billion in car sales last year, Fleming said, citing statistics compiled by the National Automobile Dealers Association. He expects that amount to be topped this year, explaining that growing confidence in the economy and plentiful financing at desirable interest rates are among the reasons for the brightening picture.
U.S. car sales are expected to reach 17.8 million vehicles, ahead of 2015's robust 17.47 million sales, according to an Automotive News report.
Some Connecticut dealers are feeling so good about current conditions that they are buying up other dealers, Fleming said. It was a much different story seven years ago, when the number of dealers shrank through Great Recession-fueled bankruptcies.
“In 2009 we had that brutal winter when credit dried up and we lost a lot of dealers,” Fleming said. “Things have turned around. People seem confident now.”
Mystic-based Valenti Auto Sales is among those turning strong sales into an expansion of properties. In September, Valenti purchased McGill Chevrolet of nearby Pawcatuck and is converting the site into its center for selling used cars. McGill is being renamed Valenti Stateline Motors and President Rob Valenti expressed pride that Sean McGill, a longtime friend, is becoming his business partner and will continue to manage the site.
“It’s a benefit to both of us,” said Valenti, who also owns dealerships in Old Saybrook and Westerly, Rhode Island in addition to the flagship Bob Valenti AutoMall of Mystic.
Although they only account for 2 percent of sales in Connecticut, electric cars are getting increased attention thanks to the state’s CHEAPR, or Connecticut Hydrogen and Electric Automobile Purchase Rebate, program. The automotive retailers group worked with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in creating the program, which offers rebates of up to $5,000. Electric vehicles are generally more expensive than their traditional internal-combustion-engine counterparts.
“It’s not some tax, mail-in rebate,” Fleming said. “It’s cash on the hood. It comes right off the price at the time of sale. The state was very smart in designing it.”
The rebate program, which involves Eversource Energy and includes funding from the Northeast Utilities/NStar merger that created Eversource, started in May 2015 and about 780 rebates have been issued so far, according to Paul Farrell, assistant director of planning and standards at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. So far 80 percent of Connecticut electric vehicle transactions have been leases with 20 percent being sales, he said.
“This is a new technology so a lease allows someone to give it back after two or three years if they’re not happy with it,” Farrell said.
While still considered a pilot program, Farrell rates CHEAPR a “success.”
Two years ago, Connecticut joined with seven other states in committing to a goal of putting 3.3 million zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2025. Since there are only 2,713 plug-in hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt and 1,792 full-battery electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf currently on the road in Connecticut, many expect the goal not to be met.
Still, the Connecticut dealers group continues to aid electric vehicle marketing with Fleming planning to present an award to the top-selling electric car dealership during the Connecticut International Auto Show next month.
Electric vehicles including the new Chevrolet Bolt and Toyota Mirai will be center stage at the auto show, which is scheduled for Nov. 18-20 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. For the first time, visitors will have an opportunity to experience some electric vehicles through a Ride & Drive program sponsored by Mazda and Toyota. The electric vehicle test drives will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Nov. 18, Fleming said.
“It might be the first time this is being done in the entire country,” he said.
The convention floor will be “packed” with every major brand, Fleming said. Among the display vehicles will be the new Chrysler Pacifica, the first minivan to earn a Top Safety Pick+ award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“It’s totally full,” he said of the show’s display space.
Another first at this year’s show will be a showcase of motorcycles. The display, which will be on the second-floor mezzanine, will include Indian motorcycles, a brand that was reborn three years ago and has some roots in Connecticut. The first Connecticut dealership of the revived brand opened in August on Federal Road in Brookfield.
Other makes on display will include BMW, Harley-Davidson and Victory.
“We’re listening to our customers,” Fleming said. “Many of them are quite interested in motorcycles.”
This year will mark 10 years that the show has been held at the convention center, which Fleming said is the largest venue in Connecticut. It had been held previously at the XL Center in Hartford. The association is planning to hold at least the next two shows at the convention center.
There are no plans to move the show although Eastern Connecticut’s casinos are becoming increasingly strong competitors for convention business. Mohegan Sun hosted the Barrett-Jackson Northeast collectors auto auction in June, which attracted 90,000 visitors and was the most successful three-day auction in Barrett-Jackson’s 45-year history, according to Gary Baker, the Uncasville casino’s director of convention sales and services.
It was the first auto auction ever held at Mohegan Sun.
Baker, who called the results “fantastic,” was unsure whether the Connecticut International Auto Show would be a “good fit” at Mohegan Sun since he is unaware of the show’s requirements.
“Mohegan Sun is an amazing place to host a wide range of events, offering not only event space,” he said. “We have everything under one roof as the Barrett-Jackson crowd discovered and enjoyed.”
The Connecticut Convention Center is prized for its central location in the state, Fleming said. It draws many patrons from Fairfield County and Rhode Island, he said.
“It’s an opportunity to show off our capitol city and the many things it has to offer,” said Fleming, a former state senator and majority leader who lives in the Hartford suburb of Simsbury.
“It’s happening the weekend before Thanksgiving,” Fleming said of the upcoming auto show. “That’s a great time of year and I know our guests will appreciate the time they spend with us.”
Admission is “a bargain and priced right” at $10, Fleming said.
The Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association is 95 years old this year, making it one of the oldest auto trade associations in the country, he said.
“As we head toward our 100th year, I’m amazed that, by and large, most dealerships are still family-owned,” Fleming said. “Car sales remain a family business here in Connecticut.”
The Valenti family epitomizes Fleming’s summation of Connecticut’s auto merchants.
Rob Valenti owns his Eastern Connecticut properties in partnership with his three sisters – Cheryl, Beth and Jean – taking over after their father, Bob, retired. Rob Valenti’s two sons and some of his nephews work at the dealerships. Rob’s grandfather, Ferdinand Valenti Sr., started the first Valenti dealership in Wallingford in the 1920s. The Wallingford dealership today is owned by Rob’s cousin, David Valenti. Another cousin, Fred Valenti, owns dealerships in Hartford and Watertown.