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Pent-up demand, stronger economy helping drive car sales in Arizona

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PHOENIX – Arizonans are buying cars again due to pent-up demand, a recovering economy and favorable loan terms, according to experts.

“There are still a lot of need-buyers out there,” said Knox Ramsey, president the Valley Auto Dealers Association, noting that the average car in the U.S. at present is a higher-than-normal 11 years old.

Dennis Hoffman, an economist at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said monthly sales are now around $650 million but need to be about $730 million to return the pre-recession peak.

Retail sales for both new and used vehicles in Arizona have grown about 15 percent annually for the past two years, he said.

“We’ve got a little ways to go, but the trend is certainly in the right direction,” Hoffman said.

Jim Rounds, senior vice president and senior economist at Elliott D. Pollack & Co., a Scottsdale-based consulting firm, said the growth has a lot to do with people postponing automobile purchases during the recession in order to buy necessities like food.

Maricopa County’s three-month moving average for auto purchases experienced double-digit, year-over-year growth from March 2012 through March 2013, according to Rounds’ assessment of Arizona Department of Revenue data. The area has seen growth in vehicle sales since October 2010, according to the data.

Ramsey, with the Valley Auto Dealers Association, said that while Maricopa County has seen gains across all market segments, including luxury vehicles and compact cars, dealership sales of new light trucks have been particularly strong.

Through August, new retail light-truck sales in Maricopa County grew 20.1 percent, while across the country the gain was 14.4 percent, Ramsey said.

He attributed that growth to contractors needing new vehicles because of the recovering construction market.

Registrations for all vehicles sold to individuals through Maricopa County dealerships grew 16.7 percent during the same period, while the increase just for cars was 14.1 percent, Ramsey said.

He said that the auto industry is cyclical, so he doesn’t get too excited about short-term numbers.

“It’s a real rollercoaster,” Ramsey said.

Buyers, even those with poor credit histories, also are having an easier time getting auto loans, he said.

Interest rates for a 60-month new-car loan in Phoenix ranged from 1.99 percent to 3.75 percent, according to data compiled from on Monday.

Hoffman said that the rate of growth will eventually slow, though he said demand for fuel-efficient cars will continue.

People can lease cars for $200 a month that have double the fuel economy of their current vehicles, he said.

“If you’re doing a fair amount of commuting, you can offset a significant piece of that lease right from the outset,” Hoffman said.