The value of auto sales in Maine is up significantly over last year, driven by consumers choosing more expensive vehicles like trucks and SUVs over passenger cars.

Although the number of sales is expected to be flat, the pricier models and people buying new rather than used are positioning Maine dealers for a banner year.

“I think this year is an anomaly,” said Vinnie Goulette, general manager of Emerson Chevrolet in Auburn. “Car sales trailed off all year, but truck sales are through the roof. It’s truck sales keeping us in there for sure.”

Automobile retail sales in Maine totaled roughly $3 billion through the first eight months of 2015, a 7 percent increase over sales of $2.8 billion during the same period last year, according to data from Maine Revenue Services. If that increase holds to the end of the year, retail sales will exceed $4.5 billion, compared with the $4.2 billion in sales in 2014.

But the volume of sales is expected to be flat compared with 2014 – not such a bad place to be, said Adam Lee, chairman of the board at Lee Auto Malls, Maine’s largest automobile dealership network.

Last year was a record-breaker at Lee Auto Malls; it marked the first time its 20 locations in southern Maine sold more than 10,000 new and used cars in a single year. Lee said the company is on track to match last year’s sales figures, but not exceed them, with only eight weeks left.

“We don’t like to be flat, but last year was our best year in history,” Lee said. “If you’re flat with the best year in history, it’s OK. But we want to do better.”

Other dealers are seeing the same thing. The Maine Automobile Dealers Association doesn’t collect data, but the group’s president says his members are reporting flat sales.

“The dealers are saying they’re doing as well as a year ago,” Tom Brown said. “2015 sales are going to be about the same as they were in 2014.”

Vehicle sales continue to be strong because of low gas prices, inexpensive financing and the release of pent-up demand as the economy improves, according to auto dealers like Lee and Goulette.

Emerson Chevrolet bucked the flat sales trend and just closed its best October in nearly a decade, Goulette said. The dealer has sold 450 vehicles so far this year, already surpassing last year’s total of 400, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

“It hasn’t fallen off dramatically this fall,” he said. “Usually we get into September, October, November and the market falls off a bit, but sales have been fairly consistent.”

Goulette noted that although car sales are doing fine, it’s been sales of trucks and SUVs that have really been driving the big numbers for his dealership.

Low gas prices have definitely caused more people to consider upgrading to a truck or SUV, which typically are less fuel-efficient, Goulette said. The average gas price at pumps in Maine was $2.22 a gallon Monday, well below the more than $3 a gallon price at this time last year.

“I have a lot of used passenger cars coming in on truck and SUV sales,” Goulette said. “We have people trading up to SUVs. I think it’s a sign of a good economy.”

John Isaacson, CEO of Lee Auto Malls, concurs.

“Cars sales are good,” Isaacson said. “But truck and SUV sales are terrific.”

PICKUP TRUCKS LEAD SALES LIST

Small SUVs, full-sized pickups and compact SUVs are the three most popular vehicle types in Maine so far this year, representing 59.1 percent of all new car registrations through September, according to the Cross Sell Report, which compiles data about the automobile industry. During the first nine months of 2013, those three types of vehicles represented only 51.9 percent of all new car registrations in Maine, and compact SUVs were only the fifth most popular segment, behind compact cars and midsized cars.

The three most popular models for new vehicle sales this year are the Chevy Silverado pickups, followed by Ford F series pickups and then GMC Sierra pickups, according to data compiled by Cross Sell. The first passenger vehicle to make the most-popular list in Maine is the Toyota Corolla, which doesn’t appear until No. 12.

While low gas prices certainly help, another factor driving truck sales is an increase in new home construction, Isaacson said.

“You ever notice that a lot of the trucks you see have the names of businesses on the side?” Isaacson said.

New home construction is on an upward trend. There were 2,783 new-home permits issued in Maine between January and September of this year, more than during the same nine-month period in any year since 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mainers’ vehicle preferences are mirroring a national trend. In October, the number of light-duty trucks sold in the U.S. was up 21.9 percent compared with the same month last year, while SUV sales during the month were up 19.2 percent, according to Motor Intelligence. Meanwhile, passenger car sales in October were up year-over-year only 4.1 percent.

Overall, automobile sales across the country have been prompting predictions for a record-breaking year. Big automobile manufacturers like General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Nissan all reported double-digit sales increases in October. Even Volkswagen, embroiled in an emissions-testing scandal that’s affected nearly half-a-million vehicles in the United States, posted a small gain in October.

While Maine sales are healthy, they’re not keeping pace with national activity, Lee said.

“It’s not the same as national figures because our growth is stagnant,” Lee said, citing a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that ranked Maine 47th in the country for economic growth. “So we’re still seeing growth, but not like it’s been nationally where sales last month were up 14 percent.”

PENT-UP DEMAND DRIVING SALES

Although the Great Recession officially ended six years ago, many people still are driving vehicles they held onto through the tough times, Lee said. Nationally, the average age of vehicles on the road is 11.5 years, the oldest it’s been in 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Two factors are likely responsible: Vehicles are better made and last longer, and people are still scarred by the recession and reluctant to take on new-car debt.

“I think the pent-up demand is still there,” Lee said.

But people shopping for new cars now are more often opting to trade in for a new vehicle rather than a used one, said Lee, an observation shared by other dealers.

“The fact is, if people can afford to buy new cars, they like to buy new cars,” Lee said. “There are lots of car buyers that if they could trade in every two years, they will. So if you have pent-up demand, when things ease up a little, that drives sales.”

Auto dealerships are enjoying the best of both worlds – people who had been holding out are now buying again, and those feeling flush are trading in more often, said Goulette at Emerson Chevrolet.

“There is a pent-up demand – no doubt about it,” he said. “But we’re also getting the people that don’t need to trade in, but want to trade.”

Auto sales in Maine, like other consumer markets, are somewhat insulated from national trends, Isaacson said.

“To some degree we’re fortunate in Maine. We don’t have the high highs and we don’t have the low lows,” he said. “It’s the same as the housing market. … Maine’s prices fell, but not as far as in some places because they hadn’t gone up as much as in some places. And that’s the same in the car business. The pendulum doesn’t swing as far in either direction.”