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A High-revving Engine

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says sales have been on the rise for several years at TommyCar Auto Group, and she expects this trend to continue at its dealerships.

Initial national projections for 2017 called for the recent rise in auto sales to level off and then perhaps slow down. But those forecasts have been adjusted recently. Indeed, the experts say a host of favorable factors, from low gas prices to a stable economy to the advanced age of many cars on the road, will continue to fuel increases in sales volume.

John Kupec III has been in the automobile-sales industry for 40 years. But he has never seen trade-ins with as many miles as the ones being brought to Gale Toyota in Enfield today.

“We’re seeing cars come in with more than 250,000 miles,” the general sales manager told BusinessWest.

Indeed, a poll conducted last month by market research company IHS Markit shows the average age of light vehicles on the road is 11.5 years, and the trend Kupec observed is mirrored at other dealerships.

“This week alone, I saw trade-ins with 160,000 miles, 180,000 miles, and 240,000 miles — vehicles last longer than they used to, but people have taken it to the extreme,” said John Lewis, general manager at Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram and Bertera Fiat and Collision Center in West Springfield, as he spoke about reasons that led so many people to keep their vehicles for a decade or more.

John Kupec

John Kupec is optimistic about the year ahead, and says Gale Toyota of Enfield hopes to increase sales by 10% to 15%.

The practice began in 2008 when the economy crashed. Consumer confidence plummeted, 401(k) plans lost their value, and people worried about job security and began to realize they could drive their vehicles much longer than they had believed possible without incurring a lot of repairs.

“Today alone, we took in a 2001 with 160,000 miles and a 2005 with 155,000 miles,” said Craig Dodenstein, sales manager for Toyota of Greenfield, who noted that people usually upgrade to a new vehicle when the cost of repairs becomes prohibitive.

Sales began to rise a few years ago in line with a renewed confidence in the economy that has slowly taken root. But last fall, the National Automobile Dealers Assoc. predicted 2017 would be the year in which sales would reach their peak and begin to slow down. That projection was changed, however; now, sales of new vehicles in the U.S. are expected to remain above 17 million for the third straight year in a row, and even rise slightly toward the second half of the year.

Chart of area Auto Dealers

Aging vehicles still on the road have resulted in pent-up demand, and that factor, coupled with new models, aggressive manufacturer incentives, low interest rates, reasonable gas prices, and an upswing in the economy, are fueling optimism at local dealerships for the coming year.

“Last month, our sales were up 10% over January of last year, and we expect a 20% increase in 2017,” Lewis said, attributing the number not only to the company’s reputation and the service it offers, but the fact that Subaru sales have climbed and a new $5 million Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealership is under construction, which hindered sales last year when they started working from trailers.

Fathers & Sons in West Springfield also has a new dealership, an $18 million facility that is home to Audi and Volkswagen franchises.

“We want to grow, plan to grow, and have the tools in our arsenal to do it,” said Sales Manager Ethan Prentiss. “In December, Volkswagen had the best month in company history, and this year we expect a 10% to 12% increase in Volkswagen and Audi sales, and an 8% to 10% increase in Volvo sales,” he said, referring to the company’s other dealership on Memorial Avenue, which houses the largest dedicated Volvo dealership in the country in terms of square footage.

Ethan Prentiss

Ethan Prentiss says the demand for SUVs and crossovers such as the new Volkswagen Touareg continue to rise at Fathers & Sons Volkswagen.

Incentives are also boosting sales, and Kupec said Toyota’s are higher than they have been in decades. “The manufacturer is offering 0% interest on some models, which they have never done before; hefty rebates of $2,000 to $3,000; and bonus cash on leases,” he said. “We’re off to a great start and hope to have a 10 to 15% increase this year in sales.”

Bill Peffer concurred. “It’s a very exciting industry to be in, and our outlook for 2017 is very, very positive,” said the president and chief operating officer of Balise Motor Sales, which has 24 stores in three states. “The market is very strong, and any volatility has been offset by manufacturer incentives. There are tons of new choices for customers — it’s a very good time to buy a car, truck, or SUV.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest looks at the current landscape within the industry and what the road ahead might bring.

Getting into High Gear

Last June, Volkswagen agreed to buy back its 2.0L diesel vehicles after a lawsuit that proved it had used emissions-system-defeating software. The VW Group also agreed to pay owners $5,100 to $10,000 in additional compensation on top of a fix or buyback of their car.

The negative press that ensued made sales challenging for a period of time, but buybacks began last October and accounted for a quarter of the Volkswagen sales at Fathers & Sons in December.

“These people would normally not be in the market for a new car, and the projection is that we will be able to retain 25% of them; many of our customers love the way their Volkswagens drive and handle,” Prentiss said, explaining that this situation, coupled with the new dealership and a lineup of exciting new products, is not the only reason for the projected increase in sales.

“We are now a negotiation-free dealership, which is what customers want,” he continued. “Buying a vehicle here has become all about the experience. Our salespeople are non-commissioned, and customers can find what they are looking for and complete the purchase within two hours.

“We give them our best price up front and make it fun to buy a car,” he continued, adding that Volvo sales are also up, as the manufacturer broke records last year due to the launch of a new image and the release of new products.

Toyota of Greenfield is another dealership that has undergone change. It moved into a new, $7 million dealership last winter and held a grand opening last May, so 2016 was a year of transition as they were able to move out of the trailers they worked in during 2015 while construction was underway.

“We’re looking for a 5% to 10% increase in sales this year, and if January was any indication, we are headed in the right direction,” said Dodenstein, adding that January sales had almost tripled over last year’s numbers by the third week of the month.

Although the new dealership certainly makes a difference, manufacturer incentives and new products add to the enticements. The new electric Prius Prime is a leader in its class; it gets 133 miles per gallon, beat a preliminary 22-mile electric volt range estimate with 25 miles, and gets 54 mpg in hybrid mode.

Meanwhile, Carla Cosenzi said last year was a great one for TommyCar Auto Group, which includes Hyundai, Nissan, Buick, GMC, and Volkswagen franchises. Some stores did especially well, including Hyundai, which experienced strong demand for entry-level vehicles.

“Hyundai gives customers a lot of value for their dollar, including technology, safety, and the aggressive pricing people are looking for,” Cosenzi explained, noting that consumers are excited about the fact that new technology is standard in many brands of entry-level models and ranges from adaptive cruise control to lane assist, collision warning, and backup cameras.

TommyCar is expecting another excellent year, and the sales of the new Volkswagen Golf All Trac station wagon, which has all-wheel drive, accelerated right after it was released. In addition, SUVs and crossovers are becoming increasingly popular, such as the 2017 seven- passenger Nissan Rogue and Volkswagen Tiguan.

“People want the space, comfort, and luxury they provide. They are more expensive than compact cars, but with interest rates and gas at all-time lows. they’re affordable,” Cosenzi noted.

Other local dealers agree that the demand for trucks, crossover vehicles, and SUVs is growing. They point to the fact that unemployment rates are low, people use trucks to do business, and buyers of all ages want to be able to travel in the winter.

“The weather in New England is unpredictable, and people want mobility whether they are driving to the ski slope or have the kids in their vehicle during a snowstorm,” Peffer said, adding that today’s crossovers and SUVs offer that versatility.

He noted the trend has changed over the past few decades. “Station wagons were popular from the ’40s through the ’70s. But when Chrysler came out with a minivan in the ’80s, the evolution of SUVs began, and so did the way people chose to be mobile,” he told BusinessWest, noting that crossovers and SUVs are affordable, offer more utility than mid-sized cars, and get good gas mileage.

Prentiss said Fathers & Sons sells seven-seat vehicles as quickly as they get them, and Audi’s Q7 and Volvo’s XC90 SUV models are popular because they offer utility plus plenty of cargo space. In addition, Volkswagen’s Tiguan and Golf All Trac have made the brand competitive with Honda and Toyota.

Changing Landscape

Local dealers say leasing has increased and accounts for a good portion of their new-car transactions.

“Leasing allows people to move into cars with low payments without the hassle of long-term maintenance; they can lease them to drive what they want and turn in the car before the warranty is up, as opposed to incurring costs over a six-year loan period,” said Peffer, noting that, a decade or two ago, leasing was reserved for commercial buyers, but today it has gone mainstream, and a third or more of Balise’s new-vehicle sales are leases.

Leasing is also popular at Bertera and accounts for 38% of its new-car business. “Technology is moving so fast, and people want the latest advances. Plus, a segment of the population is always going to have a payment, and they can get a brand-new car every two to three years with a lease,” Lewis said.

He explained that the average payment on a purchased $40,000 vehicle is $500 a month for six years, but the same vehicle can be leased for $300 to $350 a month with very little money down, which makes it attractive.

Kupec noted that the appeal extends to different age and economic groups, especially since people who do a lot of driving can build additional miles into a lease.

“People are more receptive to leasing than ever before,” he said, adding that 40% of the store’s new-car transactions are leases.

Prentiss told BusinessWest that a large portion of Millennials would rather lease than buy a new vehicle. “It has to do with their psychology; they think a three-year lease is long enough.”

The market for electric vehicles is also growing. Cosenzi said the Hyundai Ioniq, which is scheduled to come out in the next month, will have a battery-only model with an electric driving range of 124 miles and an EPA rating of 136 miles per gallon.

Positive Signs

From a big-picture, national-economy perspective, the road ahead is certainly marked by unpredictability and guarded optimism.

In the auto industry, through, there would appear to be fewer potential bumps in that road and apparently smooth riding. As noted by all those we spoke with, a number of factors are contributing to greater confidence on the part of consumers, and this is translating into greater activity at area dealerships.

As they say in this business, there is plenty of tread left on those tires.

Autos Sections

Supply and Demand

Jennifer Cernak

Jennifer Cernak says technology and connectivity features often appeal to younger buyers.

With the Millennial generation quickly becoming a more powerful force in the economy — totaling around 85 million, they’re now in their 20s and 30s, and their spending clout is only growing — auto dealers have definitely taken notice.

“They’re becoming more influential in the purchase of durable goods, including vehicles,” said Bill Peffer, president and chief operating officer of Balise Motor Sales. “They’re buying for themselves as they get older, but many are still living with their parents, so they’re also influencing their parents’ decisions. That’s quite a reversal from the Baby Boomers, who wanted to break free of the Greatest Generation and develop their own tastes.”

One way Millennials are changing the car-buying process is in their reliance on technology, specifically the online experience of car shopping.

According to Automotive News, more than 90% of car shoppers begin the journey online, visiting an average of 18 sites, including Google, online shopping networks, and social media, before showing up at a dealership, usually unannounced. However, Millennials take this process further, visiting an average of 25 sites before buying a vehicle.

“They definitely use technology to find what they need before they come into the store,” Peffer said. “Not too many years ago, the average consumer visited four or five stores. Now, with the explosion of technology and social media and the Internet, they’re making visits to far fewer stores before they actually make their purchase.”

Most Millennials don’t like to negotiate. They have information; they know what the cost is. They do their negotiating online.”

The average, actually, is fewer than two, he said. “They go to one store, and if the experience isn’t pleasant, if it’s not to their satisfaction, they go to the next one. Particularly with Millennials, they know what they want; the question is, are you able to meet their needs? You have to arrive at a mutually acceptable price and respect the convenience of when they want to make the purchase.”

J.D. Power reports that Millennials — usually defined as the generation born between 1980 and 1998 — bought 4 million cars and trucks in 2015, their share of the new-car market jumping to 28% — a number expected to rise steadily each year, with some estimates having them accounting for 75% of all purchases by 2025. So dealers need to understand their habits and preferences.

“I think it forces everyone to be on their game. It forces dealers to adopt — and not only adopt, but utilize — technology to fulfill the dealer’s end of the process,” Peffer said. “This is how shopping has evolved, not just for vehicles, but for everything. You can shop from your house for a suit at 10 o’clock at night.”

As for car shopping, he continued, “the deal has to be completed in the store, but we can make it convenient as well. We can deliver the car to the house for a test drive. We help the consumers make the decision where and when they want to.”

It’s all about meeting demand — for a generation of car buyers that can be well, demanding.

What’s New?

Jennifer Cernak, co-owner of Cernak Buick in Easthampton, understands the demands placed on a dealership by a prepared shopper.

“Most customers have already spotted the car they want; they’ve seen it online, and they know what they’re looking for,” she said.

Young people tend to appreciate technology, she said, from smartphone apps that connect a smartphone’s navigation feature to the vehicle, and infotainment apps like Pandora, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto.

“There’s definitely some cutting-edge technology,” she said. “People don’t always think of that when they think of Buick; they don’t realize we have some of the latest and greatest technology and features out there.”

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says young, Internet-savvy shoppers, armed with data before they arrive at the dealership, are changing the car-buying game.

While Millennials certainly appreciate infotainment and connectivity packages — features that make the car a sort of platform for all one’s personal tech — that’s only one part of what they’re looking for in a car, Peffer said.

The second big draw is safety features — everything from lane-departure sensors and active braking systems to multiple airbags and safety shields: in other words, components that both help avoid crashes and protect riders in the case of one.

The third attraction is, quite simply, value, a concept that goes beyond the bottom-line price, encompassing everything from how well a vehicle holds its resale value to how it will serve their lifestyle and needs. That explains the popularity of compact SUVs, or crossovers, because they tend to support the activities of families and outdoor enthusiasts at a more reasonable price than larger SUVs.

Cernak noted that the Buick Encore compact SUV has broad, cross-generational appeal, and that includes Millennials, who appreciate features like all-wheel drive, Bluetooth connectivity, in-car wi-fi, backup cameras, and being able to start the car from their phone — a mix of traditional and thoroughly modern amenities. “The younger generation seems to like these things — not that the older generation doesn’t like them too. But older buyers are looking for a more traditional luxury experience.”

She also said young buyers are increasingly leasing, but that’s true across the generations. “More and more people are leasing. If someone likes to get in a brand-new car every few years, it can be more affordable. Some people just want to keep up with the latest and greatest.”

Peffer likewise doesn’t see much difference in the popularity of leasing between the generations, but noted that, as a whole, the New England region leads the country, along with the West Coast, in the percentage of car shoppers who choose that option. “I don’t see that waning. No matter what the generation, it’s a great option.”

Jeff Sarat, president of Sarat Ford Lincoln in Agawam, said he sees plenty of crossover in what vehicles and elements of the car-buying experience appeal to the different generations, though he noted that some of the company’s outreach, particularly search-engine marketing, is created with younger, more tech-savvy consumers in mind.

One big difference, however, is the loyalty factor. Baby Boomers were far more likely to develop brand and even dealer loyalty and return for new product every few years for decades. Millennials, Sarat said, are less likely to forge those bonds, and are much more willing to switch models, brands, and dealerships if they see more value elsewhere.

“Millennials are apt to jump around a little bit, meaning they might go with a Volkswagen this time and then next time try a Ford,” Sarat said. “Maybe their friend recommended a car they thought was phenomenal, so they try that. They’re more likely to switch around, and they don’t have set buying habits, so you really have to work to make them a customer for life. We try to do that with everyone, of course, but with Millennials, if you don’t stay in contact with them, they’re more likely to move around.”

Unfounded Fears

According to Business Insider, there was some concern in the auto-sales industry about how enthusiastic the growing Millennial generation would be; among the questions were whether they’d reject SUVs and whether they would gravitate toward mass transit. But those fears proved unfounded, as young professionals and families were a key factor in the industry’s surge to its current sales pace, which has topped 17 million for two straight years, with the same expected in 2017.

Yes, Millennials are demanding, and their penchant for Internet research doesn’t make things easier on auto dealers, but it’s not a negative, Peffer said; it just means dealers have to know as much as buyers do, and be ready to clearly explain subtle differences in pricing and features, skills they should already have.

“Most Millennials don’t like to negotiate. They have information; they know what the cost is. They do their negotiating online. They come in knowing exactly what they want to pay,” he told BusinessWest. “This is how shopping has evolved in the overall economy. The question is, are you able to meet their needs?”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

Waiting to Leave

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says her newest dealership was designed to give the customer a positive experience and not waste their time.

There’s no one way to design an auto dealership, but increasingly — driven by both manufacturer requirements and an ever-more-demanding clientele — newer stores boast a number of specific features, from spacious, drive-in service departments to comfortable, well-stocked lounges; from energy-efficient touches to an emphasis on openness and transparency in the showroom. At a time of fierce competition for business, dealers say these elements are necessary to attract buyers — and keep them coming back.

Gary Rome summed up the experience of most of his customers succinctly and bluntly.

“When people are waiting for a car, they’re waiting to leave,” said the president of Gary Rome Hyundai. And that goes for both people in the market for a vehicle purchase and those bringing their rides in for service — in either case, no one wants to spend any more time at a car dealership than they have to.

On the other hand, sometimes it takes a while to, well, leave. Which is why so many aspects of his new facility on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke, which opened last month, are designed to keep customers occupied and … let’s just say in less of a hurry to go home.

“One of the most important things to customers is time,” Rome told BusinessWest. “If you value their time and make it easy to purchase a car or have their car serviced, you’ll get loyal, repeat customers. So I want to make the process as enjoyable as possible by offering all the amenities I think are reasonable for our customers.”

Gary Rome car dealer

Gary Rome says energy-efficient touches throughout his new dealership are aimed squarely at reducing his carbon footprint.

To that end, the customer lounges — there’s one for watching TV, another for quietly doing business, and a play area for kids — border a coffee bar with free coffee, fruit, and muffins, as well as vending machines loaded with healthy snacks. Beside the TV is a screen detailing the status of every repair job currently underway, and the lounges overlook the service department so people can watch their cars being worked on.

Northampton Volkswagen and Country Hyundai, two neighboring stores in TommyCar Auto Group, opened their doors in 2014 with a similar focus on the customer experience. People bringing their cars in for service are met with high-speed doors followed by a porter who shows the way to a waiting room decked out with a TV, wi-fi, business workstations, smartphone jacks, free drinks and snacks, and even complimentary bicycles outside in case customers would rather take to the nearby bike trails instead of waiting indoors.

“We designed everything for the comfort and convenience of the customer,” said Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar. “We’re doing everything with the customer in mind.”

To that end, the facility has improved the employee experience as well, incorporating air conditioning, high ceilings, large windows, and LED lights in the service department — a far cry from the hot, cramped workspaces of old. Productivity has soared under those conditions, she said, which means, yes, less waiting for customers.

“They’re set up for efficiency, so they can be more productive and make the best use of customers’ time while they’re here. That’s where the majority of our focus was while building this.”

See: Area Auto Dealers in Western Mass.

Damon Cartelli agreed that efficiency, as it impacts the customer experience, is paramount — and a major design trend in the auto industry. His company, Fathers & Sons, opens its new, connected Audi and Volkswagen dealerships this week on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield, which boast the same type of high-speed doors — which trap air inside, keeping the space cool during warm days and warm during cold ones — that Cozensi spoke of. The driver then parks, gets out of the car, and walks directly into the shop, where a lounge with a TV area and workstations awaits.

“That’s now standard across the industry,” said Cartelli, the company’s president. “New dealerships have an area that’s comfortable and quiet so you’re able to work or sit in a lounge and have coffee and watch TV.”

While comfortable lounges and drive-in service bays may be among the more obvious hallmarks of the modern auto dealership, other trends — from a focus on transparency in the sales area to environmentally friendly features — are surging as well. For this issue’s focus on auto sales, BusinessWest explores three dealerships, two of them brand new, to talk about what dealers are doing to move customers out quickly — and get them to return, time and again.

No Secrets

Cartelli noted that many features of a new dealership — particularly Volkswagen, which demands uniformity in new dealerships with their nameplate — are blueprinted by the manufacturer, and many of the touches, including the high-speed doors, the finished service driveway (as opposed to a concrete look), the high-tech customer lounges, and display areas where customers can buy clothing, branded items, and vehicle accessories are required elements.

Damon Cartelli car dealer

Damon Cartelli says the prominent use of glass inside and outside his Volkswagen and Audi dealerships promote transparency, in both design and customer dealings.

So is the transparency. To look around the showroom is to see office walls of glass, so sales associates and managers are never hiding from customers. Cartelli said the look reflects his own philosophy of doing business in a transparent way.

“We have a transparent pricing model. We’re transparent with everything we do, with how you buy a car. We don’t want customers asking, ‘what is he doing back there?’ You can see what he’s doing. We have nothing to hide. That’s part and parcel with how we do business, which is nice.”

Cosenzi had to deal with the same demands from VW, although Hyundai was more flexible in its requirements. But she agreed with Cartelli that openness is a positive for customers.

“Sales managers are no longer in big podium stations; they’re approachable, in the middle of the showroom, and all the salespeople work in an open environment at their desks,” she said. “As you walk through the dealership, you see the open sales stations, the glass. When you’re in the finance office, you constantly see and follow what’s happening with paperwork and flow.

“We worked really hard to make the customer experience great,” she went on. “You see a lot of light when you walk in, and you’re immediately greeted by a warm, friendly body at the greeter station. We made sure all the customer parking was up front, made it really easy for them. We want customers to feel like they’re getting the VIP treatment all the way around.”

Cartelli said the best way to make customers feel important, quite simply, is to not waste their time. “If you can increase efficiency in how you do business, that’s important — the speed with which business gets done is second only to price. People want a fantastic customer experience, and they want to know how quickly you’ll get it done.”

Rome incorporated elements of transparency in his new dealership as well. “It’s important for me that customers come inside the building and are able to watch their cars being worked on,” he said, pointing out the line of sight between customer lounge areas and the spacious service department. “Some dealerships take the car around back to some black hole, and you don’t know what thery’re doing or when it will be ready. This is a much better experience.”

In this day and age, customers expect this treatment. If you don’t have it, there are other dealerships out there that do, and you’ll be missing out.”

But Rome also wanted a dealership that’s cutting-edge in environmental ways as well, incorporating a number of green elements aimed squarely at reducing the store’s carbon footprint, from energy-efficient LED lights to insulated windows to a car wash that reclaims and recycles water. All the oil collected during oil changes isn’t discarded, but rather stored in drums and pumped back into the heating system and used to heat the service department, while oversized fans circulate air in that area and control temperature. He even installed electric car-charging stations on the premises that anyone — not just customers — can stop by and use.

“Simple things like automatic faucets and toilets, motion-sensing lighting in the offices, reduces our carbon footprint,” he said. “In addition to that, we’re putting a 650-megawatt solar array on the back of the property. We’ll be generating energy.”

Lots of Options

There’s one other feature the new dealerships share: more space.

“The main feature is being able to display every model Hyundai makes,” Rome said, noting that the new showroom holds 15 cars, an outdoor canopy houses eight more, and the vast property contains hundreds more vehicles than could have been displayed at the former location on Main Street.

Cartelli’s new property is designed to handle 200% growth. “We’re in growth mode, and we have the ability to grow into it,” he said. “We’ve overbuilt for today’s business, so we can overserve the customer.”

That service begins right away when a driver enters the wide indoor bay and a device instantly tests the vehicle for alignment — a feature at the other new dealerships as well. Once out of the car, customers notice the tiled floors, which are slip-resistant and easier on the feet than cement.

In short, everything is geared to giving customers an enjoyable experience while they wait to leave. At Gary Rome, people leaving with a new car are able to fill out their paperwork in a glass-walled business office looking out over a covered area where their new car sits beside a red carpet. From the moment they walk in, he said — his rule is that associates greet any customer within 10 feet of them on the showroom floor — to that roll outside on the red carpet, everything is designed with the customer in mind.

Cosenzi said such touches are more important now than ever.

“In this day and age, customers expect this treatment,” she told BusinessWest. “If you don’t have it, there are other dealerships out there that do, and you’ll be missing out.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

Groundbreaking Event

As they took to the podium placed near the front door of the hotel known long ago as the Schine Inn (it’s had many names since), several politicians reflected on the important place the site has had in Chicopee’s history, especially its political and business history. And they noted that this legacy will certainly continue as the site is prepared for its new life — as home to a Mercedes dealership to be operated by Springfield Automotive Partners. Ground was broken for the ambitious, $12 million project on Sept. 21. The dealership, highly visible from the exit 6 tollbooth of the Mass Pike just a few hundred yards away, is due to open in just under a year, said Peter Wirth, managing partner of Springfield Automotive partners, who is undertaking the project with his wife, Michelle, and partners Rich and Amy Hess.

An architect’s rendering of the 37,000-square-foot Mercedes dealership

An architect’s rendering of the 37,000-square-foot Mercedes dealership

A large group of officials take up shovels for the groundbreaking

A large group of officials take up shovels for the groundbreaking

Managing Partner Peter Wirth

Managing Partner Peter Wirth addresses the large gathering for the ceremonies

Autos Sections

More for the Money

CrossoversDPartLayersSport utility vehicles have long staked out significant market share in the auto-sales world, as Americans appreciate their roominess and flexibility. But their price tag has been a little high for sedan owners who might otherwise consider a larger vehicle. Enter crossovers, or compact utility vehicles, which are small SUVs that handle like cars — and typically boast a price point in the sedan range. For these reasons and others, they’ve soared in popularity in recent years, and are a main reason why SUVs now outsell sedans in the U.S.

A look at any parking lot might suggest America is the land of SUVs, but the past two years have seen hard statistics back up that perception.

Indeed, as recently as 2013, sedans accounted for half of all new-vehicle sales in the U.S. Last year, they accounted for just over 40%.

Ken Cernak, president of Cernak Buick in Easthampton, has seen the trend play out locally. “This is the second year SUV penetration been greater than sedans — last year and this year,” he told BusinessWest. “Before that, it was equal, but the last two years, it has changed, and people are buying more SUVs than passenger cars.”

At the heart of this trend is the continued dominance of perhaps the past decade’s most significant auto-sales trend: CUVs, or compact utility vehicles, also known as crossovers.

It’s easy to see why. While traditional, large SUVs are built on a truck platform, CUVs are built on a car platform and handle more like a car. But they offer much of the roominess of SUVs at often lower gas mileage and a sticker price more in line with midsize sedans.

“It’s not that people don’t still like to buy cars,” Cernak said, “but more people coming into the market are looking for SUVs of all kinds, both new and used.” And CUVs — Buick’s version is called the Encore — are driving the shift.

Though SUVs have long been popular with American motorists, the capability, passenger room, and storage space of most sedans is adequate for the needs of most families; to those who didn’t need the extra space (for camping and other hobbies, or toting multiple pets around, for example), SUVs were a luxury the price difference didn’t justify.

But CUVs, which compete with sedans at a very similar price point, are making converts. It partly explans why even hugely popular car models like the Toyota Camry and Prius fell last year to sales lows not seen since 2011, while the BMW 5 Series and Ford Focus and Fusion saw drops of up to 20%, according to Carbuzz.

“This isn’t a bad thing for automakers because crossover and SUV sales remain strong enough to keep the trend of total vehicle sales going up,” the publication notes. “Companies that have strong SUV lineups are seeing the greatest benefits from this shift in power.”

Like Balise Auto Group, which specializes in close to a dozen nameplates. Bill Peffer, the company’s president and chief operating officer, said CUVs are just one more step in America’s ever-evolving shift in driving tastes.

“If you go back through the decades, it was the sedan in the ’60s, the station wagon in the ’70s, minivans in the ’80s, sport-utility vehicles in the ’90s and 2000s,” he said. “But the traditional SUV, which was on a truck platform, has moved to a car platform and created a new segment of CUVs, or crossovers, if you will. CUVs offer the utility and some of the capacity of a truck, but still retain the comfort and drive and fuel economy of a car. It’s the best of both worlds.”

He said the crossover — popular models include the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, the Ford Edge, the Mazda CX5, and the Nissan Rogue — appeals to any number of groups, from empty nesters to newlyweds looking for weekend adventure; from hobbyists to growing families.

“They’re a lot more comfortable overall, and the footprint is a lot smaller than the Expedition, Tahoe, or Explorer,” said Peffer. “And with so many choices in the $25,000 to $35,000 range, many with four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, it’s a pretty compelling proposition. If you have any type of utility needs or a big family, it’s hard not to go the way of the CUV, and manufacturers are picking up on that; their products are reflecting more and more of that.”

Price and Performance

Michael Oleksak, general manager at Burke Chevrolet in Northampton, has done well in recent years with Chevrolet’s crossover, the Equinox, which offers front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, depending on the buyer’s preference.

“They’re very popular,” he said. “There’s the price-point part of it, but another part is the way the vehicles are built. You’re not getting up into it, and you’re not getting down into it; it’s almost level. So, if you’re an average-height person, they’re very easy to get in and out of.”

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says manufacturers have picked up on the growing popularity of crossovers and are busy introducing more to the market.

The utility aspects aren’t dissimilar from a larger SUV, he added. “The back is very functional because the rear seat actually moves forward and back just like the front seats, so you can get a little extra cargo room. Or, if you have a larger person sitting in the back, they have the extra room.”

In addition, Oleksak said, the low base price of most CUVs gives buyers an opportunity to add amenities, from leather seats to a moonroof, and remain below a large SUV’s price tag. “You can get something very well-equipped, very top of the line, or something very basic, or in between. The way it’s built, it’s very versatile with regard to budget.”

Cernak agreed that crossovers are easier than SUVs to enter and exit, which is especially helpful for elderly people. “It’s easier to step up and step down; in a car you drag yourself up and out. So the Encore is very popular with both young and elderly women; their size isn’t too small and isn’t too big. It’s easy to park and drives and handles well. Also, a lot of our women customers like the idea of sitting up a little higher, for better vision.”

Ken Cernak

Ken Cernak says his dealership, reflecting a national trend, now sells more SUVs than cars, and crossovers are driving the shift.

On an aesthetic level, the appeal of CUVs has become so well-understood that they adhere to a certain formula, Gregory Lang, corporate strategic planning manager for Toyota in California, told the Atlantic last year. “Frankly, if you lined up a Ford Escape, a Honda CRV, and a Toyota RAV4, and you were looking at them 50 yards away and you were an average customer, I don’t think you could tell the difference. Somebody in the industry could, but the crossovers have collapsed on a certain formula that seems to be very in vogue — some sleekness but a strong dose of utility.”

They also tend to be quieter inside than most cars, Cernak noted, which is another selling point.

However, their main appeal remains their sheer utility, Peffer said. “You can load furniture, load people, whatever your heart desires. Americans are fairly nomadic, and they’re also adventuresome, and SUVs fit that lifestyle. And because we have different sizes [with CUVs], the affordability aspect brings access to more people.”

Fueling Sales

Another element in the surging popularity of crossovers — especially for buyers who would traditionally purchase a sedan — is the currently low gas prices.

“They do make a difference,” Oleksak said, noting that the Traverse, Chevrolet’s next size up — larger than the Equinox but smaller than bigger SUVs — is also reaping the benefits of savings at the pump, and is a solid choice for, say, larger families who want a third seat.

Peffer agreed that the fuel-cost situation has been good for sales of larger vehicles, from crossovers to larger SUVs to trucks, which are selling well.

Whatever the reasons, automakers have begun to adjust to a landscape where sedans are currently being pushed to the side by SUVs and crossovers. For example, this past January and February, The Truth About Cars reported that a dozen premium brands produced 150,000 SUV and crossover sales, up 17% from the same period one year ago. Even luxury names reflected the shift; in February, Lexus was down 1,883 new-car sales from a year earlier but added 1,978 SUV and CUV sales.

Meanwhile, Automotive News reported that Hyundai’s new-car sales slipped 5.8% just last month, while its crossover sales nearly doubled.

Cernak isn’t surprised by such trends. “It’s been going in that direction for a long time,” he said, noting that Buick will soon unveil the Envision, which, like Chevy’s Traverse, bridges the size gap between the Encore and the brand’s large SUV, the Enclave. In other words, more choices for a buying public that’s increasingly ditching sedans.

As for crossovers, “when we get them, we sell them,” Peffer said. “That’s pretty much across all brands, from Lexus to Kia and everything in between. That’s where all the news is. That’s what’s selling.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

Revving Up for Success

Ray Smith

Ray Smith does a brisk business selling motorcycle accessories because most owners upgrade and customize parts on their bikes.

Ray Smith left his career as a homebuilder 14 years ago to live his dream.

“Motorcycles are my passion,” he told BusinessWest, as he recalled how he opened Cycle Stop, an independent motorcycle shop in South Hadley.

In 2104, he put on a 13,000-square-foot addition because he needed more room to display the pre-owned, low-mileage motorcycles, accessories, clothing, and parts that he sells and also needed to expand his thriving service department.

Smith has seen small and large motorcycle shops and franchises close their doors over the past decade, but his business has done well, and he predicts this year will be a good one not only locally, but for the industry as a whole.

Other dealers agree and say growth has been on a slow but steady trajectory for the past few years, and they expect the trend to continue.

“We sell fun and are on the road to success,” said Glenn Morin, sales and finance manager at Valley Motorsports in Northampton, adding that the company’s inventory includes cruisers, touring bikes, sport bikes, and adventure bikes, which have become very popular because they have both on- and off-road capabilities.

Sales at Valley Motorsports have risen 9% to 10% each year since the recession ended, and the goal for 2016 is to do at least slightly better than that. The company expects to reach it, because it has seven makes under their roof, the economy is rebounding, and manufacturers are introducing new, exciting models.

Owner Jerry Randall, who opened the business in 1973, said Valley Motorsports provides financing and does its best to make a purchase seamless, which helps boost its numbers. But although it carries models that include cruisers, touring bikes, sport bikes, and adventure bikes, he doesn’t think sales will ever return to the levels seen before the recession: in one year spanning 2004 and 2005, nearly 1.1 million motorcycles were reported sold in the U.S., compared to last year, when the Motorcycle Industry Council reported that 500,678 street bikes, dual-sport, and off-road motorcycles were sold.

“Things have been inching up over the past few years, but it has been a long, uphill struggle, and I don’t think sales will ever be as good as they were; motorcycles are still a luxury,” said Randall, noting that, in today’s economy, people think very carefully about assuming debt and how they spend their money, and motorcycle owners are keeping their bikes longer, which is a trend mirrored in auto sales, where the average trade-in is 10 years old.

But interest in racing and other forms of off-road cycling is picking up (more about that later), which adds to the fun, desirability, and, therefore, the motivation to buy a bike.

Indeed, spring is the season to take to the road. “People have been pent up all winter and are anxious to get out on their bikes,” Smith said, noting that most of his sales occur between March and June.

Jerry Randall, left, and Glenn Morin

Jerry Randall, left, and Glenn Morin say Valley Motorsports sells Ducati motorcycles, which are popular, but can be difficult to find because few dealers carry the Italian bikes.

Aaron Patrick, who owns Harley-Davidson of Southampton, projects a 20% increase in sales over last year, when the company sold more than 400 motorcycles.

“We expect to sell 476 new or used models this year; sales are always dependent on weather, but if we have the June that we are expecting, we will be about halfway to our goal,” he said, adding that, although they stay open all year, the bulk of their sales take place during an eight-month period.

The company’s worst year was 2012, when it sold 375 bikes, and during its best year, that number reached 600. “We hold our own,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Harley-Davidson is careful to keep the number of new bikes manufactured in line with supply and demand, and also has a number of marketing campaigns.

He promotes sales in a different manner that focuses on local riders, and sponsors the Pioneer Valley Harley Owners Group, which has more than 100 members who take part in charity rides and other events to help the community.

Catering to Customers

Harley-Davidson offers a mixture of traditional motorcycles and trikes, which are bikes with three wheels. Prices for new units start at $7,000 and reach above $40,000.

Patrick said the Southampton dealership spends a lot of time fitting its customers to the right bike, and the number of available models make it possible for people of any shape, size, or ability to enjoy riding.

“Comfort and fit are a big thing, so we have people sit on a lot of bikes, and if they have a motorcycle license, we allow them to take models on test drives,” he said.

The dealership boasts $15 million in annual revenue and holds special events that cater to the growing number of female riders. They include Ladies Nights and a Ladies of Harley group within the Pioneer Valley group that has about 15 members.

Sales Manager Rob Thompson says Harley has five families of motorcycles to choose from. Baby Boomers tend to like touring models, which can come equipped with saddle bags, storage space beneath the seat, a backrest for the passenger, and a windshield, and which appeal to people who ride up to 20,000 miles a year.

Boomers make up a large percentage of the client base, but manufacturers’ marketing efforts are geared toward raising awareness and demand for the brand among younger generations, and include buyer promotions and special financing deals, along with two new entry-level street bikes.

One has a liquid-cooled engine that makes riding in the summer cooler, and although Harley diehards don’t like the idea, Thompson said it appeals to many people, including first-time buyers of all ages.

“A Harley is no longer just a retirement gift,” said Patrick. “It can be a birthday or graduation gift, and younger people are getting more involved with them because of their comfort and ride quality.

“Harley-Davidson is a lifestyle, and more affordable than most people think,” he went on, adding quickly that new owners typically begin customizing their bike at the time of purchase or shortly after they get it home, which can add to the price.

Aaron Patrick, left, and Rob Thompson

Aaron Patrick, left, and Rob Thompson say that, although Baby Boomers are a major part of the customer base at Harley-Davidson of Southampton, their popularity is growing with younger people.

Indeed, selling accessories plays a vital role in annual revenue for many dealers, especially since styles wax and wane in popularity. For example, over the past five years, many Harley owners have chosen matte finishes on their wheels and exhaust systems instead of chrome, which requires considerable maintenance, and some models are built with the finishes.

Smith carries a large number of parts and accessories, and said the rise in sales over the last two years, coupled with solid jobs reports recently and an uptick in the economy, led him to project a 10% increase this year.

The service department at Cycle Stop is on track to meet that number, but so far sales are at a 4% to 5% increase, so he has throttled back his expectations in that arena.

But he also does a brisk business selling accessories and says it’s not uncommon for people to spend $500 to $600 on a new seat and $1,800 on an upgraded exhaust system with a computer and air- flow cleaner.

“Some customers want custom paint, and others want fancy wheels, seats, and handlebars,” he said. “We do Massachusetts state inspections, and I had a guy today whose headlights passed, but were dim. When I pointed it out, he immediately purchased a $500 LED upgrade because he saw the benefits in terms of safety and added value. And another customer purchased an $18,000 bike earlier this spring and immediately spent another $8,000 to customize it.”

Gearing Up

Valley Motorsports specializes in European and Asian manufacturers, including the Italian Ducati (its flagship brand, which Morin called their “bread and butter”), the Austrian KTM, and Japanese bikes manufactured by Honda, Kawasaki, and Yamaha.

Sales are higher this year than at the same time last year, and Morin says Ducati has introduced new models such as the Scrambler G2, which ranges in price from $8,000 to $32,000 for a fully equipped, race-ready model which can be ridden on the street and at the racetrack.

Indeed, race bikes that don’t have mirrors, lights, or blinkers are gaining in popularity and appeal to riders of all ages who want to race.

“They’re becoming very popular and have helped increase our sports-bike sales; people like to take their motorcycles on the racetrack because they can ride as fast as they want without having to worry about other vehicles or the speed limit,” Morin said, adding that some bikes can reach speeds of 186 mph. Valley Motorsports is sponsoring two race events this summer at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.

Adventure bikes with touring capability on paved and unpaved roads are also gaining in popularity, and Randall says dirt bikes account for one-third of the overall business at Valley Motorsports. Although they appeal to a broad age range, most owners are in their 20s and 30s and enjoy taking part in competitive events held on a weekly basis.

“The evolution of technological advances over the past 10 years has given people the opportunity to use these motorcycles in a safe, controlled environment where they can enjoy their performance no matter what kind of bike they’re on,” Randall said.

A recently issued consumer report says the motorcycle industry is facing a number of challenges: motorcycles are rarely an individual’s primary vehicle, there is an aging core group of owners, and efforts to draw women into the market have been less effective than manufacturers hoped for.

But the influx of new racing bikes and the thrill of taking to the open road are certainly fueling optimism within the industry.

“It’s great to be able to feel the wind in your face,” said Smith. “You can clear your thoughts when you ride, and if you go to a place like the Quabbin Reservoir, you become aware of flowers, birds, hawks, and other things people don’t pay attention to when they are driving a car.”

Randall agreed. “Everyone here is a motorcycle enthusiast, and it’s fun for all of us,” he told BusinessWest, as he spoke about the fact that some bikes get good gas mileage and insurance is reasonable.

“You can cloak the reasons to buy a bike in the economy, but it’s really about having a good time and enjoying the wide, open road.”

Autos Cover Story Sections

Turbo Charged

Jennifer Cernak

Jennifer Cernak says Buick’s new models, including its first convertible in 30 years, due to arrive in a few eeeks, are just one of many reasons to be optimistic about 2016.

Last year was nearly one for the record books when it came to new-car sales, with more than 17 million transactions recorded nationwide. There were a host of factors that contributed to that stellar performance, from attractive interest rates to low gas prices to an aging fleet of vehicles on the road. As the new year kicks into second gear, little has changed, playing-conditions-wise, so dealers are expecting more high-octane results.

Jennifer Cernak says there’s an intriguing story behind the 1922 Buick, model 22 37, parked in the showroom of the dealership her grandfather, Samuel, opened on Route 10 in Easthampton in 1940.

It turns out the car was a trade-in, a key piece in a deal the elder Cernak clinched in 1962.

“It wasn’t worth a lot of money, but my grandfather really wanted the antique, so he took it in trade,” she explained, adding that it’s been front and center, in one respect or another, ever since.

It’s been driven in various parades over the years, for example, and it’s been put on display at several classic-car shows across the region. But while it still runs fine, it hasn’t been out of the showroom much lately, Cernak told BusinessWest, because it doesn’t easily negotiate the ramp used to bring vehicles in and out of that room.

Go HERE for a PDF chart of area auto dealers

But it might soon have to make that trek and lose the spot it has owned for years, she went on, because Buick has a number of new models coming out over the next few months, and showroom floor space will be at a premium, to say the least.

“We’re already thinking about what to do,” said Cernak, adding that, while the antique holds a special place in this three-generation family business, it may have to go — somewhere — to make room for the Cascada and the Envision.

The former is a convertible, the first one Buick has offered in perhaps 20 years, and it’s due to arrive later this month. The latter, expected by summer, is a mid-sized SUV, smaller than the company’s Enclave and bigger than its Encore. Both are expected to be real assets in the carmaker’s ongoing efforts to convince the buying public that Buick isn’t just a model for your uncle or grandfather.

“There’s a lot of buzz about these cars, and we’re really excited to have a lot of new models,” Cernak explained, adding that the new nameplates are just one of many reasons why she believes the robust performance of 2015 — witnessed across the auto industry — will carry over into this new year.

And she’s not alone in that assessment.

Bill Peffer, COO at West Springfield-based Balise Motor Sales, told BusinessWest that industry analysts are predicting another solid year for sales, perhaps even something approaching the 17.4 million new cars sold in 2015, a total just shy of the record set some 15 years ago.

The reasons for such projections include everything from attractive interest rates (0% is still available, although harder to find), to low gas prices; from a still-strong economy to lingering, pent-up demand in the form of many older cars still on the road that need to be replaced; from decent weather (knock on wood) to an abundance of intriguing, well-made products.

“The stars are certainly aligned,” Peffer said of the current auto-sales sky, adding that, while this is a buyer’s market in every sense of that phrase, it’s an environment in which many constituencies benefit.

This includes consumers, dealers, and auto makers, who are, he said, taking the profits from the surge in sales and plowing them back into research and development, which will in turn lead to innovations and new products, which will continue the current cycle and fuel more growth.

“Forecasts we’re getting from various sources show growth this year,” he told BusinessWest. “Gas prices are lower, consumers have access to credit and low rates, we have a fairly robust economy, we’re seeing demand for vehicles, and there’s adequate supply. It all adds up to a very positive environment for sales.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest talked with several area dealers about what to expect in the months to come, and why all the experts are expecting another year in the fast lane for this industry.

Firing up the Grille

Don Pion calls it “old iron.”

That’s an industry term of sorts that Pion, second-generation president of Bob Pion Buick GMC in Chicopee, summoned to describe the volume of elderly vehicles still on the road.

Don Pion and his son, Rob

Don Pion and his son, Rob, note that many factors point to continued solid sales in 2016, especially all the “old iron” still on the roads.

There are many of them, he said, noting that there are a number of contributing factors to this phenomenon, including better quality, which prolongs a car’s life, and several years of lingering doubts about the economy and the direction in which it was headed, which prompted many consumers to get another year — or two, or three, or four — out of their vehicles.

“The age of the fleet, the cars on the road today, remains at an all-time high,” he said. “It’s almost 12 years, according to the reports I’ve heard, which is pretty remarkable given the number of cars that were sold last year.”

This old iron — and ‘old’ is a relative term, certainly — is one of those aforementioned stars now in alignment and a contributing factor to solid projections for the year ahead, said those we spoke with.

Indeed, the more elderly vehicles — which have kept service departments jammed, providing a different source of revenue — are finally being traded in, spawning sales of new and used cars. Meanwhile, a large amount of younger old iron — especially a huge number of cars coming off leases after 36, 24, or even 12 months — is creating attractive inventory for the used-car market, where profit margins are usually better than those for cars right out of the box.

It’s part of an intriguing cycle, with a number of moving parts, but sales of the new models definitely set the tone.

“The new-car side of the business is kind of the catalyst that makes everything go,” said Pion. “It keeps everything running.”

Peffer agreed, and said that current trends collectively comprise the best news for the industry — the fact that there is plenty of fuel to keep this fire burning through the year and probably well beyond.

Indeed, while more than 50 million cars were sold in 2015 — those 17 million new models and north of 40 million used cars — there is still plenty of demand for both.

“There is a lot of activity out there, and as dealers we sell new and used vehicles,” he explained. “When you take a used vehicle in, you sell a new vehicle, so that helps new-car sales. You recondition and then sell the used car, creating another transaction, creating more service department work, creating another customer that comes back for repeat business and service.”

Meanwhile, in a departure from recent years for some models, there is ample supply of new cars and trucks, although dealers could always use more.

The 1922 Buick at the Cernak dealership

The 1922 Buick at the Cernak dealership may soon have to find a new home to make way for the new models to roll in over the next few months.

“For many years following the recession [in 2008], you had a situation where there was maybe more demand than there was supply,” said Peffer, adding that this scenario was true with some carmakers more than others. “Most manufacturers, though, have caught up, and will, or already have, satisfied demand through additional production.”

As for the nature of that demand he and others mentioned, it comes in a number of flavors, and this is yet another reason for the rosy outlook for the industry.

Much of the focus, of course, is on the huge and seemingly insatiable appetite for SUVs and trucks, and especially the latter. Peffer said these vehicles have always been popular, and become even more so when gas prices fall below $3 a gallon. When they’re below $2, like they are now, it’s hard to keep trucks on the lot, and soaring truck sales, he noted, create a rising tide that, as the saying goes, lifts all boats.

“Low fuel prices generally move people into bigger vehicles, heavier vehicles — truck-based vehicles, so trucks are really hot right now,” he explained, putting additional accent on ‘really.’ “And when people buy more trucks, that’s good for the manufacturers — they take that money and put it into R&D, and that yields new products. The truck business is profitable for the manufacturers, and it’s profitable for dealers as well.”

But while trucks are white hot, so, too, are SUVs, a class of vehicle that has seen its appeal spread well beyond soccer moms.

“They’re attracting people of all ages, including a growing number of older individuals because they’re much easier to get in and out of,” said Rob Pion, Don’s son and a member of the third generation of management at the dealership. “There’s interest across the board.”

So much so that there is now demand for a host of different-sized and variously appointed SUVs to meet the wide variety of needs within that growing market. And that’s why Cernak is so enthusiastic about the Envision.

“Some people find the Enclave too big and the Encore too small,” she explained matter-of-factly, adding that the Goldilocks factor is prompting all makers, including Buick, to respond accordingly. “We really needed a mid-sized SUV, and now we’re getting one.”

And with gas prices low and expected to stay that way for the near future, sales of these vehicles should remain brisk, said the Pions, both noting that the near certainty that these prices won’t last isn’t nearly enough to deter most all buyers of these larger vehicles.

Setting a President

Don Pion’s memories of life in the auto business stretch back more than a half-century, to when his father was a salesperson at the old Boulier Chevrolet in Springfield and he would accompany him to the lot.

He recalls the fall season, when the new models would roll in and the dealership would cover the showroom windows with brown paper to build suspense and draw customers in.

He also remembers Presidents Day and how it was a much bigger deal decades ago, when red, white, and blue balloons would often populate the showroom, dealers would give away cherry pies with sales, and area newspapers would be crammed with full-page ads announcing deals.

Most all of that is gone now, especially the newspaper ads, he said with a hint of lament in his voice, adding that the Presidents Day sales, always a bigger event in the Northeast than other parts of the country for some reason, were designed to break the winter doldrums and give people a reason to get into the showrooms.

Such sentiment still exists, and some dealers continue to mark the holiday with special sales, he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that promotions are now a near-constant in this business, with new incentives on a monthly or quarterly basis. As for February, in many respects it’s just another month, although sometimes a challenging one when winter hits with full fury, as it did in 2015.

This year, of course, it’s expected to be a solid month, as all those aforementioned stars continue to shine an optimistic light on the industry.

“Everything is very favorable right now,” said Don Pion as he surveyed the scene. “All the signs are positive.”

There are always threats to this sector, though, and things could change in a hurry. But most potential stumbling blocks, such as the stock market’s dreadful start to the year, are minor or temporary in nature, said Peffer.

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says the “stars are aligned” when it comes to the auto industry and sales projections for 2016.

Still, while most of the arrows are pointing up for this industry, there are challenges in various forms, starting with heightened competition in the form of quality vehicles carrying seemingly every nameplate.

“Where quality was once a market differentiator decades ago, now it’s cost of entry,” said Peffer. “I can’t think of a brand that doesn’t have really good quality.

“There are so many new-product offerings on the market right now that are full of technology, full of safety features, full of performance and styling,” he went on, adding that all this competition is in many ways a positive more than a negative. “All this really piques a customer’s interest; it’s a very good time to be in the market for a new or near-new vehicle.”

Pion agreed. “In the age of consumerism that we have now, bad products don’t survive in any segment, whether we’re talking about automobiles or whatever,” he explained. “You have to build a good product because anyone can go online and read the reviews — and people do that before they buy.”

For the Buick dealers, meanwhile, there’s the almost age-old (no pun intended) challenge of convincing younger audiences that this brand is not just for their father or grandfather.

Rob Pion recalls a recent episode involving a younger individual who test-drove one of the Buick models, liked it, but then offered, ‘I’m not old enough to drive a Buick,’ or words to that effect. And that’s a fairly common refrain.

“We battle that all that time,” said the younger Pion. “If I could just blindfold people until they got in the car and took it for a test drive, I know I could sell more people on these vehicles.”

Super Models

Time will tell whether that 1922 Buick retains its long-held parking space at the Cernak dealership. But at the moment, it looks like the family may well have to find a new home for the antique.

The Cascada will be arriving in a few weeks, and the Envision not long after that. In the meantime, the existing models, including more traditional offerings like the Lacrosse and the Verano, are in solid demand.

Add it all up, and the focus clearly shifts to the present and future, not the past.

And to the stars, which, as Peffer and other dealers said, are certainly aligned.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections

A Subtle Edge

Bonnie Nieroda

Bonnie Nieroda says she encountered a “boy’s club” when she first started selling cars, but times have changed in some respects.

When Carol Buker started selling Fords 42 years ago, it wasn’t unusual for her to encounter blatant sexism. Some male customers refused to talk to her, while others didn’t believe a word she said.

“I remember one man who came to the dealership wanting to know about trucks; he told me, ‘I am not about to talk to you,’” said Buker, a sales and leasing consultant for Toyota of Greenfield, adding that the roles of men and women had been set in stone and many people didn’t feel a female had any credibility or belonged on the sales lot.

Bonnie Nieroda faced similar challenges that were exacerbated by male co-workers who wanted to drive her out of the business.

“It was a tough industry, and selling cars was a boy’s club,” she said, citing memories of a finance manager who refused to process her deals because the salesmen didn’t want her there. “They conspired against me and took bets on how long I would last. They gave me a month.”

She not only beat their predictions, but outlasted most of them, became a success, and has been happily employed as a master certified sales consultant at Marcotte Ford in Holyoke for seven years.

Barbara Spear expected to confront discrimination when she was hired as a salesperson at Balise Lexus because she had encountered it during her previous job as general manager of a construction company. However she didn’t anticipate cynicism from other females, and was shocked by a friend’s response when she told her about her new job.

“She asked me why they would even consider hiring a woman,” Spear said, admitting, “I knew nothing about cars and had never even pumped my own gas when I took this job. But I had spent my whole life in sales, knew I could sell anything, and am a people person who really loves making my customers happy.”

Today, she numbers among an elite group of females who excel in a male-dominated industry. In fact, only 7% of auto salespeople are female, despite the fact that women play a leading role in 85% of auto purchases.

“It’s not an easy job. You have to shovel and brush snow off cars in the winter and deal with the heat in the summer,” Buker said. “You miss out on a lot with your family due to the long hours, but you also gain a lot.”

Those gains include close relationships that females tend to form with customers who share stories about deaths, divorces, illnesses, and family problems with them. There are also financial rewards because it can be a very lucrative career, and these women say they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“It gets into your blood,” said Jodi Colter, a sales manager for Fathers & Sons Volkswagen in West Springfield. “I took a two-year break when a family member became ill, but I always return. I like my staff, enjoy coaching people, and love the daily challenge of trying to make sales.”

Barbara Spear

Barbara Spear says selling cars isn’t easy, and doing it well means time spent away from family. But there are many rewards as well.

Spear concurred. “This business is about making new friends and continuing the relationships. I am a workaholic and tend to be here seven days a week to accommodate customers, but I compete against myself and do very well,” she noted.

These women, in other words, are willing to go above and beyond to make prospective buyers happy.

For example, Nieroda had a female client who had her drive two different cars to the graveyard where her father was buried because she felt he would give her a sign as to which vehicle she should purchase.

“I just sat in the car while she got out,” she explained.

Bumpy Road

Some women find jobs in auto sales by happenstance, while others enter the field dreaming of autonomy and economic sufficiency. But the substantial sacrifices required to travel down such a road cause many to drive away from the futures they projected for themselves.

Colter’s career began after she was hired as a receptionist by Balise Motor Sales in 1996. She took the job to pay for college, and “became enchanted by the sales process” when she worked with the sales team.

Since that time, she has seen many female sales associates come and go, and said one of the toughest obstacles they face is balancing family life with the demands of a job that can require them to work six or seven days a week, plus holidays.

“I have a 4-year-old and a 14-year-old, but I also have a nanny; I’ve seen many single parents quit because of the hours,” she told BusinessWest. “Every mom wants to be home with her kids, and although it’s important to guys, they may be geared a little bit differently. Throughout the history of time, men have always been away from home working.”

But Colter and other saleswomen said that, if their peers are lucky enough to have family to help with children, or choose to make the sacrifices required to perform this work, they quickly discover their innate ability to communicate gives them a subtle — or maybe not-so-subtle — edge over male co-workers.

“When customers see me come out of my office, there is always an element of surprise,” Colter noted. “But then they seem to let their guard down … they joke with me and say, ‘so you’re the boss?’”

She takes such comments in stride. “You have to have a thick skin in this business, and I don’t get the objections some males do when they start to discuss numbers,” she went on. “Seeing a woman’s face can be refreshing, and some female buyers are more comfortable dealing with another woman. And if someone only wants to deal with a man, you can’t take it personally.”

Jodi Colter

Jodi Colter says selling cars “gets into your blood.”

Buker says things have improved dramatically over the years and agrees that women have an advantage that comes to them naturally: their ability to listen empathetically and form bonds with people quickly.

She recalled one woman who purchased a car, then came back and sat at her desk and sobbed because her husband was very sick and she knew Buker would be sympathetic.

“I interact with my customers as if they are my friends. It’s just how I am,” she said, explaining that she knows many people have felt intimidated by auto salespeople and believe buying a vehicle is a confrontational experience.

She fell into the job after graduating from college and has never regretted it.

“I really love being able to help people,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t know what they want, have a problem with the website, or don’t know whether to repair their vehicle or buy a new one. I give them advice and have taken them into our service department if I feel it’s necessary because I want them to feel comfortable with their decision.”

Indeed, feeling respected is a critical factor in the profession, but saleswomen have heard stories from women about how they were insulted by salesmen.

“Women have told me they felt as if they have been talked down to,” Nieroda said. “But nine times out of 10, the woman in the family is the one who controls the sale. If she feels it’s not a good value, the answer will be ‘no.’”

Still, the stories abound. One woman told Spear she picked out a car, and when she was ready to purchase it, the salesman told her he would not discuss price unless she returned with her husband. Meanwhile, she recalled, another woman sat in the parking lot and sent her husband inside to buy a car until Spear coaxed her out of her car and listened to stories about bad experiences she had had in the past.

“I think women tend to be softer and a little more compassionate when it comes to sales. I tell my customers it’s their money, so it needs to be their decision; there shouldn’t be any pressure,” she said.

Changing Field

The Internet has had a dramatic affect on the way vehicles are sold.

“It has opened up the doors to the world,” Spear said.

But there are pros and cons: dealers lose sales because a car doesn’t have the exact specifications someone is looking for, but gain them if they have it in stock, even when the buyer lives in a distant state.

“I’ve shipped cars to Nigeria, Texas, Washington State, and California,” Spear said, noting that it’s not uncommon for people to purchase a certified auto via the Internet without ever test-driving it because they know it has gone through a 161-point inspection and is under warranty.

However, some still want the experience of seeing the vehicle, sitting in it, or taking it for a test drive, and will drive long distances or fly to the dealership, then make the purchase and drive their new auto home.

However, this can lead to less personal interaction, and although Buker applauds the research people do in advance of a purchase, she misses the ties that are forged when both parties work together to find a vehicle that fits their needs.

Other changes in the industry include the fact that advertising is being geared more toward advances in technology than improvements in the vehicles.

“We used to sell cars, but now we are selling technology — cars that can park themselves, radar that lights up when another automobile is passing, power lifts, and all types of sensors,” Nieroda said.

Buker agrees. “When I was a kid, it was a big thing when a new car was introduced to the market. People would line up in front of a dealership to see it, but today everything is online, and people can find what they want there.”

That includes prices for new vehicles advertised on general websites, which can become problematic because they don’t include docking and destination fees, CARFAX reports, or the cost of certifying a vehicle.

“Some people expect dealers to function without making any profit at all,” Nieroda said, citing another challenge.

She thinks sexism still exists in the auto-sales industry, although it definitely has lessened.

“I sell more trucks than the guys here, but you still don’t see many women in this business, and I imagine some people think I’m an anomaly,” she said. “The industry continues to be dominated by males, but it’s a lucrative field and women are not only smart, we probably have an edge because some people are more comfortable dealing with us. I can’t tell you how wonderful people are; I’ve gotten cards and flowers, and it really is a wonderful feeling to sell to one generation, then the next.”

Colter agrees. “If you love automobiles, this is a great field, and seeing a woman’s face can be refreshing. We’re compassionate and good listeners, so even men drop their guard and talk to us. But you do have to have thick skin, and you can’t take things personally.”

These women have conquered these challenges and others they have faced, and focus on the positive aspects of their business as they navigate the road to success using skills — both natural and honed — to help people purchase the perfect vehicle.

Autos Sections

Full Speed Ahead

AutoSalesARTdpAs the calendar cruises into October, area auto dealers report that they are well on their way to a banner year. A combination of factors — from a need to replace aging cars to lower gas prices to an improved economy — are fueling solid sales across virtually all classes of vehicles. And as the final quarter commences, dealers are keeping their foot on the gas when it comes to programs and incentives to drive more purchases and leases.

Jay Dillon called it the “perfect storm.”

But instead of a maelstrom of events leading to a disastrous outcome, the co-owner and dealer operator for Dillon Chevrolet in Greenfield was referring to a strong and rising gale that is driving new-car sales in the region and across the country.

Local dealers say their numbers have exceeded January forecasts by industry leaders, who predicted an increase of 3% and a rise in sales for the sixth year in a row, which would translate to 17 million new vehicles, a figure that hasn’t been seen since 2005.

And even though many people stayed inside last winter due to the bitter cold and record snowfalls, pent-up demand resulted in what Dillon called an “amazing” spring.

“Every day when we opened our doors, there were people waiting to come in,” he told BusinessWest.

Other major dealerships also reported healthy spring and summer sales, and as to that storm, well, it resulted from a convergence of conditions related to the economic climate. People held onto their cars during the downturn in the economy, so the average auto on the road today is 10 or 11 years old, which means its useful life is coming to an end. Meanwhile, gas prices have dropped significantly, while consumer confidence has risen and manufacturers have become aggressive in their competitive quest to attract buyers, offering incentives that range from cash back to 0% interest on many makes and models. In addition, buyers are enticed by advances in safety, design, and technology.

“People have been able to keep their cars longer because they are much more reliable than they were in the past,” said Bill Peffer, president and chief operating officer at Balise Motor Sales. “Quality has become a commodity, but eventually they have to be traded in, and everyone in the industry has benefit1ed from this factor. Buyers also have more choices than ever before.

“The biggest segment of growth is in crossovers; they have great fuel economy and the capability of a truck, but are more compact,” he went on. “Manufacturers continue to build new products that give people compelling reasons to purchase a vehicle, and overall, our sales have exceeded our expectations; they are equal to or greater than those in the general market.”

TommyCar Auto Group is also doing well. “Our sales are up over last year by quite a bit in every store, especially Hyundai,” said President Carla Cosenzi, adding that small crossover vehicles such as the Nissan Rogue and Hyundai Tucson have become big sellers, and she expects sales to remain high through the end of the year.

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi says TommyCar Auto Group is planning major promotions to ensure that solid sales continue throughout the fall.

“Although we expected an increase, we kept our projections conservative, but we have definitely outsold what we anticipated, and are looking forward to a really strong end of the month in September, October, and November,” she said. “A lot of people are beginning to think about the weather. As we head toward winter, they want to make sure they are in a safe, reliable car, and we will have great offers that should make a difference in our year-end sales. We have two major promotions that will start in October and run until January. We have revamped our strategy and are excited to roll it out.”

However, local dealers differ in their tactics to attract buyers and retain customers, so for this edition and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest explores the strategies that help fuel sales.

Tried and True Methods

Cosenzi said TommyCar’s three dealerships each gave away a brand-new car in recent weeks — a Volkswagen Passat, a Hyundai Accent, and a Nissan Versa.

Advertising for the promotional event kicked off at the beginning of the summer, which increased volume during the busiest time of year. “It drove a lot of traffic,” she said, adding that many people who entered the drawing decided to test-drive a vehicle, and the 0% financing offered by Hyundai and Nissan on leases propelled sales higher.

It’s not the first time TommyCar has given away new automobiles; in the past it staged a jingle contest and a TV-commercial contest, and the winners drove home new vehicles. But it never had a contest people could enter simply by showing up and dropping an entry form in a bucket.

“Our customers couldn’t believe it, and three happy people went home with new cars. Two had shopped us before, one was waiting to buy until she saw if she had won, and the other had recently purchased a car from us,” said Cosenzi, adding that “a really aggressive plan for the coming months should make 2015 the strongest and best year we have had in some time.”

The deals are sweetened across the board right now, however, thanks to the ‘summer selldown’ events taking place at every dealership. The 2016 models are rolling in, and spokespeople say manufacturers are offering special incentives to clear out the 2015 editions.

“It’s a time of year when people can get a really great price on a new vehicle,” said Dillon.

Peffer agreed. “Although new models are launched throughout the year, manufacturers typically offer aggressive incentives in the fall before the majority of new vehicles arrive, so we create a market,” he explained. “We’re motivated to sell all of our 2015 models before Jan. 1, when they automatically become a year older.”

Again, one of the factors in that perfect storm Jay Dillon referred to plays heavily into the stream of buyers seeking a good deal: the age of the average vehicle on the road, which is around 10 years. “Many people are facing the situation of having to repair or replace their vehicle due to its mechanical issues and high mileage. The entire industry is benefiting from this; it’s a wave we’re riding right now,” Dillon said.

Tom Dillon, co-owner and general manager of Dillon Chevrolet, said many people bring their older car into his dealership for service, and when they find out what it needs in terms of repairs, they are driven to purchase a new one. In the majority of cases, that purchase is at Dillon Chevrolet.

“We’re big on retention and people return to us because they have gotten good service. My father opened this business in 1962 and always said, ‘the sweet taste of a good deal is quickly soured by bad service,” he said, explaining why exceptional service has always been one of the dealership’s priorities.

Tom and Jay Dillon

Tom and Jay Dillon say most 2015 Chevy products are equipped with 4G LTE wi-fi hotspots, which make them particularly attractive to young buyers.

“Three-quarters of our sales are repeat customers. We’re hands-on owners who are here every day, and if someone has an urgent problem, we accommodate them immediately. We are a small town and are selling to our friends and neighbors,” Jay Dillon noted, adding that they discount vehicles beyond manufacturer’s rebates, and most customers spend less than an hour completing a sale.

It’s that same loyalty that Balise relies on to spur sales.

“We offer state-of-the-art facilities and low prices,” Peffer said. “We’re a large dealer group, and we’re consistent with our advertising, which is based on our great selection, facilities, and the fact that we treat our customers right. We generate trust and do an excellent job of staying connected to our customer base.

“Our focus is on retention, so our strategy is to develop a long-term relationship with our customers. And we have so many brands that we can offer a solution to anyone’s driving,” he continued, remarking that, although sales at all of the company’s dealerships are growing at a fairly consistent rate, Balise Subaru in Rhode Island is doing exceptionally well. “But we want people to think of Balise first, before they think of any type of vehicle.”

Attractive Options

Special promotions, such as the free cars TommyCar Auto Group gave away a few weeks ago, increased the number of visitors to the group’s dealerships. “We welcome people into our showrooms, and after they see the amenities we offer and meet our staff, they often buy a car,” Cosenzi said.

But other things attract buyers as well, and Tom Dillon says General Motors’ 2016 products will be game changers for the industry and his family dealership.

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says sales have been robust at Balise Auto Sales, and he expects the upward trend to continue into 2016.

“The all new Chevy Malibu is a big player in the mid-size segment; it’s a hybrid with a turbo engine that gets 47 miles per gallon. And the 2016 Chevy Cruze has been redesigned; it gets 42 miles per gallon, is safer, more efficent, and has 10 airbags,” he told BusinessWest. “There is also a new Camaro coming out that is lighter and has more horsepower and better handling. And every GM car will have 4G LTE.

“GM is the only one with 4G in all their new products, and we’re seeing more and more young people in our brand because of the technology — it gives us a competitive edge,” he continued, adding that manufacturers constantly make changes, but complete redesigns of a multitude of vehicles like this take place only every eight or nine years. “The Equinox will also be all-new, and demand will be high.”

Peffer agrees that technological advances are effective lures. “The new-car experience is exciting because of rapid changes in products, style, technology, and performance,” he said. “More and more cars are equipped with parking assist and lane departure, which started in Lexus. It allows the vehicle to sense if another automobile is in the blind spot, and warns the driver with a beep or a light. Back-up cameras, which offer a 360-degree, bird’s-eye view of what is in every direction, didn’t exist a few years ago, and some are in entry-level products, including most, if not all, Hondas. There are also cars with wi-fi hotspots that allow passengers to connect to the Internet in real time. Competitiveness in the industry has led to more choices for consumers than ever before.”

Leasing is another sales avenue on the rise because these vehicles are under factory warranty, payments are low, and regular maintenance is the only out-of-pocket expense.

“People see advertisements for payments on a brand-new car that are less than they are paying for an older vehicle, which entices them to visit the dealership,” Cosenzi said, adding that the value of trade-ins get worked into the deals.

Racing Ahead

New auto sales plummeted in 2008 due to the downturn in the economy and the fact that gas prices reached $4.25 a gallon. Those factors affected all dealers as well as a multitude of other industries, but fast-forward to 2015, and it’s an entirely different market.

“Our sales were up by 20% in the first six months of this year, and we have already approached our 2007 numbers,” said Tom Dillon. “We’re expecting that 2015 should be the biggest year ever for the entire auto industry.”

Peffer expects sales at Balise’s 13 dealerships to continue to be robust through the end of the calendar year and into 2016, due to manufacturer’s promotions and the aforementioned economy-related conditions that are inspiring people to get behind the wheel of a new car.

“For anyone considering buying a new vehicle,” he concluded, “it’s a great time to buy.”

Autos Sections

Measures of Control

Brian Farnsworth

Brian Farnsworth says all-wheel drive is appealing because drivers don’t have to think about turning it on and off.

Though casual car shoppers may speak of four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive as if they’re interchangeable, that’s far from the truth, Damon Cartelli says. Which system is preferable comes down to how that vehicle will be used.

“Any time you have an option that adds security — that allows people to drive to their destination with a little more security than in a traditional front-wheel-drive vehicle — people want that,” said Cartelli, president of the local Fathers & Sons chain of auto dealerships.

But while four-wheel drive dominated the market for a long time, all-wheel drive has long been recognized as the superior option for driving in inclement weather — including those snowy and icy days of a typical Massachusetts winter.

“With four-wheel drive,” Cartelli said, “each tire receives 25% of the vehicle’s power at all times. So, while a rear-wheel drive car gets 50% in each of the two rear wheels, with four-wheel drive, the power is broken down evenly between right front, right rear, left front, and left rear.

“The difference with all-wheel drive is, the system has the capability of transferring power to the wheels that are gripping, based on sensors detecting which wheels have lost traction,” he continued. “The result is better traction in wet or inclement weather — or any weather, for that matter.”

Cartelli said Audi was a pioneer of all-wheel drive back in the 1980s with its Quattro system, which helped it dominate rally racing for a decade. “Audi was eventually banned from this race circuit because the Quattro system gave them an unfair advantage against rear-wheel-drive cars.”

Today, he noted, all-wheel drive is a selling point in a wide range of cars for drivers who want stability in any weather condition.

“If you’re not buying a truck, you’re looking for classic all-wheel drive, and you don’t have to worry about anything. You get in and do your thing,” added Brian Farnsworth, a sales consultant with Marcotte Ford in Holyoke, which features four-wheel drive in Ford trucks and larger SUVs, like the Expedition, but all-wheel drive in cars and smaller SUVs.

“The main thing with all-wheel drive is, there’s no user input. You don’t have to select it; it’s always monitoring road conditions and what you’re doing, whether that’s steering, braking, or accelerating,” Farnsworth noted.

The latest all-wheel-drive systems use high-tech software and wheel sensors to detect wheel slippage more quickly than ever before, then react by activating traction control to reduce that slippage while rerouting engine torque to the wheel with the best grip on the road — as opposed to the evenly divided torque of four-wheel drive.

“It may sense when you’re taking a corner too quickly and transfer power to the wheels that are getting the grip,” Farnsworth said. “In that scenario — in any scenario, whether it’s hitting ice, sand, whatever — it senses spin in milliseconds, sometimes correcting it so that it doesn’t happen in the first place. Same thing when you take an off ramp too quickly, things like that.”

It also automatically reverts to two-wheel drive when cruising on the highway to improve fuel economy, he added.

“Four-wheel drive is a lot more heavy-duty, more work-oriented, for things like towing a boat out of the water, towing up a grade, things like that,” he went on. “It can’t be used on dry pavement, so if you take that off ramp too quickly, it doesn’t help you.”

Pros and Cons

In short, dealers say, the choice often comes down to how much off-roading a driver expects to do.

Four-wheel drive, they note, provides added traction when needed and is generally less expensive than all-wheel drive because it’s based on simpler technology. And, of course, it’s the preferred system for difficult terrain.

However, it doesn’t provide extra traction and better handling in everyday driving situations — but drivers often believe it does, leading some to take more chances on the road. The driver also has to actively turn four-wheel drive on and remember to turn it off afterward to prevent draining fuel economy.

On the other hand, all-wheel drive increases grip and control under any condition and works all the time. While it can’t match the levels of traction in low-speed off-roading that traditional four-wheel-drive systems provide, all-wheel drive does pose some clear advantages, notes Peter Braun at digitaltrends.com.

“In the sort of winter road conditions that most drivers experience, it’s nice to have a drivetrain, like a modern AWD system, that responds instantly without the driver having to toggle any switches,” he writes. “In addition, most vehicles featuring AWD tend to have better weight distribution, which also aids in traction.”

For many drivers, he added, particularly those down south who rarely experience wintry driving conditions, basic front- or rear-wheel drive is fine. Still, many drivers value the added level of comfort and peace of mind an all-wheel-drive system provides.

Farnsworth said Ford, like other car makers, has incorporated a number of different all-wheel-drive systems that shift power around in different ways, but one thing they all have in common is the ability to operate without any user input or thought, and then switch back off under normal conditions. “It’s always on when you need it most, but always trying to save you gas when you don’t.”

That does not, however, free drivers from basic common sense when operating in wintry weather, like speeding down hills during snowstorms.

“Some people think they’re invincible. They think if they’re going down a hill and hit ice, they’ll be fine because of their four-wheel or all-wheel drive,” he explained. “But it only helps you get going. It doesn’t help you stop.”

It’s also no substitute for tires that have proper tread, Farnsworth added. “It really all comes down to this: no matter what kind of drive train you have, your tires are the most important thing. The fanciest all-wheel drive in the world is not going to help you if your tires are bad. It’s just simple common sense. It’s constantly monitoring slippage, but if nothing’s getting a grip, if the tires aren’t catching, you’re not going anywhere.”

That’s a common refrain in the industry, even among those who sing the praises of all-wheel and four-wheel drive.

“You can’t put a price on safety, but shelling out [for all-wheel drive] isn’t a get-out-of-a-ditch-free card either,” writes Ben Bowers at gearpatrol.com. “No matter what you wind up picking, our advice is to study up on good winter driving skills, focus on regular maintenance, and work on improving your decision making behind the wheel first. After all, at the end of the day, it’s the man behind the machine, not the other way around.”

Peace of Mind

Even today’s front-wheel-drive vehicles handle well in wet or snowy weather as long as they’re fitted with the proper seasonal tires and the driver is careful, Cartelli said. But for people who don’t have the option of staying home from work during those New England snowstorms — doctors and nurses, for example — all-wheel drive brings an added layer of comfort. “If you have to be somewhere no matter what, all-wheel drive with the right tires will get you there.”

No matter how they use their vehicles, Farnsworth added, purchasing drive-train options beyond front- or rear-wheel drive is an investment worth making, if only for the peace of mind.

“All the new SUVs drive much like cars; the all-wheel-drive systems are not as bulky, so they don’t drive like a truck,” he said, adding that many drivers come to take the systems for granted — until it’s time to buy a new vehicle. “When they come in, it’s the first thing out of their mouth: ‘I need that all-wheel drive.’ It makes them feel safer; it’s definitely a security blanket for them.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]