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Sales by Utah's new car dealers outpaced the national average in 2011, and many are reporting that the upward trend has continued in 2012.

Whether driven by buyers finally gaining enough confidence in the economy to jettison their aging used cars or because of pent-up demand, sales statewide rose nearly 18 percent in 2011 from the previous year.

The state's 141 dealers saw total sales of $5.3 billion, or an average of $37.4 million per dealership.

During the previous year, statewide new car and truck sales were $4.5 billion, or $31.6 million on average.

"Last year (2011) was a good year for our members and 2012 should be even better," said Craig Bickmore, executive director of the New Car Dealers of Utah.

Nationally in 2011, new car sales increased to 12.7 million from 11.5 million in 2010, an increase of 10.4 percent. The National Automobile Dealers Association expects a 10 percent increase in 2012. Automakers reported strong sales results for August, leading them to predict the annual pace this year will reach 14.2 million to 14.5 million vehicles, up from 2011.

At D. Dahle Mazda of Murray, General Manager Rob Meyer said the dealership's performance was in line with statewide and national trends. "Our 2011 sales were definitely better than 2010 and our 2012 sales so far are better than last year."

Meyer said many buyers had delayed purchases during the long economic downturn that began in 2007 with the onset of the Great Recession. But "the market is improving in Utah, and we're now headed in the right direction."

Bickmore pointed out that because consumers held on to their older cars longer, the nation's fleet of automobiles is aging and now is "older than we've seen in a long, long time." The average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is approaching 11 years, according to an Associated Press report.

"A lot of consumers are going around that last turn and reaching the point where their cars are wearing out," he said. "And that means there are more people considering buying new cars again."

A boost in auto sales also provides a shot in the arm for the broader economy. Data from the New Car Dealers of Utah indicate that the $5.3 billion in new vehicle sales last year amounted to 13.9 percent of the state's total retail sales. In 2010, the $4.5 billion represented 13.4 percent of retail sales volume.

"New car dealerships pay a key role in driving our state's economy," Bickmore said. "According to information compiled by the [National Automobile Dealers Association], 8,153 people were employed by new vehicle dealerships in Utah in 2011 with an average [annual] salary of $46,080."

He said in 2010 there were 7,121 people employed by new car dealerships in the state. And those employees earned an average salary of $44,533.

Twitter: @OberbeckBiz

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