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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]

Autos Sections

It’s a Pink Party

By any measure, Sandy Cassanelli is living the American success story at a young age, raising two daughters and serving as CEO of Greenough Packaging in West Springfield, the business she co-owns with her husband, Craig.

But she also understands that youth is no guarantee against cancer.

Cassanelli was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer in 2013, at age 37, well before women typically start regular mammograms. After a tough fight that included a bilateral mastectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and 28 days of radiation, doctors told her she was cured.

“I was fine for about two years,” she told BusinessWest. “Then, in April of this year, they told me my breast cancer had spread to my liver.”

It was a devastating blow, because, as she explained, once cancer metastasizes into other parts of the body, “you’re never cured. You can be treated, but not cured. I’m lucky enough to be at Dana Farber right now, being treated with a new medicine that was a trial and was recently approved by the FDA, in hopes it won’t metastasize further and spread to other parts of the body.”

Throughout her cancer fight, Cassanelli forged a bond with representatives of the Massachusetts and Connecticut chapters of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting breast cancer. Impressed by the charity and its assurance that all money raised locally stays local, she wanted to do something to boost its profile. So, with the help of the Fathers & Sons auto group and Max Catering & Events, she’s throwing a party.

The purpose of the “Pink Party” — to be held Thursday, Oct. 15 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Fathers & Sons dealership at 989 Memorial Ave. in West Springfield — is to raise awareness of the mission of the Massachusetts affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and to raise funds to support the local fight against breast cancer.

There is no cost for admission, but donations are appreciated. Cocktails and hors d’ouevres will be provided by Max Catering and Events. Silent-auction items include Patriots tickets with club-level seating and premium parking. Guests are encouraged to wear pink in support of those fighting breast cancer. Anyone wishing to attend should RSVP to Cassanelli at [email protected] Those who cannot attend but wish to donate to the cause may do so at www.komenmass.org.

The Massachusetts affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure (Komen Mass) works with, and on behalf of, breast-cancer survivors and those who support them in local communities. The organization is dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable residents in Massachusetts from the impacts of breast cancer, particularly those who face barriers to care. Komen Mass sponsors various fund-raising events, including the Race for the Cure, and is a resource for information and education on breast health throughout the Commonwealth.

Cassanelli said she had met Fathers & Sons President Damon Cartelli at Komen events and was pleased that he offered to host the Pink Party. “We want to raise awareness of what Komen does for the people of Massachusetts, and encourage people to get their mammograms early,” she added. “Really, early detection is key, and we want to get the word out.”

Massachusetts has the second-highest incidence of breast cancer in the U.S. This year alone, more than 5,000 Massachusetts residents will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Seventy-five percent of funds raised by Komen Mass are invested back into Bay State communities through local grants that provide education, screening, and treatment services. The remaining 25% is invested into life-saving research.

To date, Komen Mass has invested over $68 million in Massachusetts-based organizations and an additional $26 million in research in the Commonwealth, and has contributed to numerous breast-cancer research breakthroughs over the past 30 years.

Cassanelli’s voice broke a little bit as she expressed hope that research funded by Komen and others may pave the way for a cure, and that she will be able to watch her daughters grow up. “People don’t realize this does affect young people. But it can happen to anybody.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Sections
Truck Sales Accelerate Due to Several Driving Forces

Jeff Sarat

Jeff Sarat says businesses that held onto their trucks during the recession are now upgrading their fleets.

Jeff Sarat predicts Sarat Ford Lincoln in Agawam will sell more trucks in 2015 than in any year since it opened in 1929.

That’s a bold statement, but he’s more than prepared to make it.

“Normally our busiest time of the year is October to December because companies make year-end purchases. It drops off to nothing from January to March, but this year there was no lull; we slowed a little, but sales are so high, we have doubled our inventory of super-duty trucks,” said the general sales manager, noting that a high percentage of buyers are businesses that put money into maintenance during the recession rather than replacing their fleets. But the combination of reduced gas prices and an upswing in the economy has changed that trend, and business owners and managers are finally trading in vehicles and buying new ones.

But they’re not the only ones creating this historic run on trucks.

Bill Peffer says most people want to own the largest and most expensive vehicle they can afford, and in today’s world, that translates to a truck.

“I can’t think of a better time in the past 10 years to buy one,” said the president and COO of Balise Motor Sales, as he listed interest rates, incentives, and lease options. “The industry has certainly returned to the level of pre-recession sales, the market is robust because the economy is getting healthier, interest rates are low, there is easy access to credit, and the option of leasing at an affordable cost have combined to drive truck sales.

“Passenger cars have limitations,” he added. “And part of the fabric of America is to utilize a vehicle in a way that fits your lifestyle.”

National reports show truck sales began climbing about two years ago and quickly gained traction. Manufacturers have introduced new models that are fuel-efficient, quiet, comfortable, and have room for a family, yet offer the versatility and utility that a truck with a towing package can provide.

“Trucks have come a long way, and the new ones ride like a Rolls-Royce — some models will even parallel-park themselves with a push of a button,” Sarat said, adding that industry forecasts predict more than 16 million new vehicles will be sold this year, and a significant percentage will be trucks.

Brett Starbard, sales manager for Metro Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Chicopee, said the new, redesigned Ram 1500 was named Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year in 2014, and better technology and design have fueled demand.

Bill Peffer

Bill Peffer says the rise in truck sales has led to a highly competitive market, which translates into good deals for buyers.

“Our truck sales have gone up by 50% since we started carrying Chrysler Rams a few years ago,” he noted. “We’re seeing an increase in people who want a truck, but don’t necessarily need one. Gas prices are down, and people live on a budget; if they are spending $50 less a month on fuel, they can afford $50 more on a new car payment.”

Ed O’Grady, sales manager for Central Chevrolet in West Springfield, said 60% of the dealership’s new truck business can be attributed to the fact that they are a bargain. Used trucks are retaining their value, and the manufacturer is offering $3,600 discounts that, in the past, were available only to employees who worked for suppliers, such as US Tsubaki in Holyoke, which sells timing chains. “Another $6,250 in incentives and rebates brings the savings on new trucks to $10,000,” he noted.

In addition, the cost of leasing has come down. “We have 2015 Silverado double cabs with four-wheel drive that are leasing for as low as $259 a month,” O’Grady said. “Leasing protects the consumer from depreciation; if the value goes down in three years, they can drop the vehicle off without taking a loss. But if a person does choose to purchase a truck, they can get a better price on a new one than on a two-year-old model due to all of the incentives.”

Starbard says Metro leases the majority of its new trucks. “Our average MSRP is $40,000 to $45,000, so the payments on a five-year loan would be $600 to $700 monthly. A lease is about half of that because the residual [remaining value] when the lease ends is as high as 60 to 70%, which means the person who leases only has to pay 30% over the term. Plus, there is no cost for maintenance,” he explained, noting that trucks have retained their value as sales were slow throughout the recession, so there are fewer used trucks on dealer’s lots, which leads to higher demand.

Body of Evidence

Although most businesses kept their trucks when gas prices reached $4 in the summer of 2008, Sarat said, many of his customers who didn’t need them took them off the road and purchased vehicles that get good gas mileage, such as a Ford Focus, which averages 40 miles per gallon.

However, other dealers report that many people took real losses by trading in their trucks for fuel-efficient cars. “People were very concerned with operating costs and some made irrational decisions as they traded in trucks for something that was far more fuel-efficient,” Peffer said.

Ed O’Grady

Ed O’Grady says it often costs less to lease a new truck than to purchase a used one.

Starbard recalls contractors who begged him to take their truck on a trade-in. “It wasn’t a smart thing to do, and they took huge losses, but if they had a job 100 miles away and were getting 10 miles a gallon, they were spending more on gas than they were making,” he told BusinessWest. “Gas prices are cyclical, like stocks, and I advised people not to sell when prices got high, but many of my customers didn’t feel they had an alternative when gas went over $4 a gallon.”

O’Grady said the government’s Cash for Clunkers program helped fuel trade-ins, and the prospect of getting an additional $4,500 for a vehicle that got poor gas mileage motivated many people to get rid of their trucks between 2008 and 2010.

“But now that fuel prices have dropped, they want their trucks back, and they are buying models that are more fuel-efficient than ever before,” he said, adding that the new Silverado with a V-8 engine gets 18 miles per gallon around town and 21 to 22 miles on the highway.

Sarat concurred. “There is definitely a pent-up demand, and as the economy continues to get better and businesses expand, we expect them to add more trucks,” he said, citing the example of a man who bought a van last year and added another this year as his business is flourishing.

Manufacturers such as Ford are also doing whatever they can to motivate prospective buyers, which includes offering 0% financing or rebates of up to $4,000 for certain vehicles. And although leasing is popular at some dealerships, Sarat said the majority of his customers purchase new trucks.

“They tend to retain their value so well that sometimes people find they can get a new truck for about the same price as a used one,” he noted. “People hold onto their trucks, so it becomes an issue of supply versus demand. Since vehicles get more expensive every year, it makes it easier to sell a new truck when you can offer really good money for a trade-in.”

Trucks have become all-around vehicles, and people today want trucks with four doors and ample interior cabin space to accommodate a family.

“Ten or 15 years ago, most trucks had regular cabs, but you don’t see many of those today; they make up less than 5% of my inventory,” Starbard said. “Today, a gentleman who owned an SUV can replace it with a pickup with full-size doors; plus, the RAM can be purchased now with a six-cylinder diesel engine that is much better in terms of fuel economy.”

Another factor that attracts people to trucks is the fact that they can customized with accessories that range from running boards to side steps, different types of wheels, exhaust systems, bed covers, and cover liners. “The average truck buyer spends $1,000 to $2,000 in accessories after the purchase,” Starbard said.

New Models

Although there are five main competitors in the truck market, which Peffer lists as Ford, Chevy, Ram, Toyota, and Nissan, new products are coming on the market because manufacturers seek to attract new buyers and retain customers looking to upgrade.

“They don’t want to lose market share, so they have become very competitive, which is good for the consumer,” Peffer said. “For some buyers, a truck is a tool of their trade, but for a growing segment, it’s a want more than a need, and luxury features such as leather seats and navigation systems appeal to a wider audience.”

Ford recently introduced a new Econoline cargo van with a choice of three engine options. “You could never stand up in them before, but now they come in two lengths and three heights, and you can stand in the medium and large models,” Sarat said. “They are a phenomenal addition and have been very popular. We have been selling several every week, and demand is starting to pick up, so we are taking in as much inventory as we can get.”

Ford also introduced an all-aluminum F-150 this year that is fuel-efficient, Chevy brought a new Silverado model to market last year, and Nissan will introduce a new Titan in the next few months.

Chevrolet stopped producing small trucks in 2012, but demand is skyrocketing for its new 2015 Colorado, which gets 27 miles per gallon on the highway and was named Motor Trend’s 2015 Truck of the Year.

“It comes with a four- or six-cylinder engine, but can tow 7,000 pounds, and every dealership across the country is taking orders,” said O’Grady. “They sell the day they arrive.”

He noted that the trend is moving from trucks with clamshell doors to four doors, and Chevrolet’s offerings convince buyers to purchase new trucks. They include a five-year, 100,000-mile power-train warranty with two years of free maintenance; wi-fi Internet connectivity that comes in every 2015 Silverado; and Remote Link, a smartphone app that allows people to lock and unlock doors remotely, view tire pressures, and send directions to their truck with their phone, which are announced via OnStar navigation.

“Sales have been on the rise for the last few years, and we believe the numbers are sustainable,” O’Grady went on, explaining that GM used to stockpile vehicles to keep people working, but have stopped that practice and now fill orders.

Still, many dealers say leasing is the best deal available, due to the fact that trucks hold their value. “More vehicles are leased in New England than in any other part of the country,” Peffer said. “There are a lot of advantages, and manufacturers recognize it as an opportunity to grow or maintain market share.”

Revving Up

Sarat Ford’s truck sales continue to grow, and several years ago it expanded its service department to help its commercial truck customers.

“We added six new bays, and as we continue to sell more big trucks, we continue to need more room,” Sarat said. “This year our sales are up by 10% over last year, and the truck business is pushing the increases.”

O’Grady has been in the auto industry for 23 years and says this is “an exciting time for truck sales.” He pointed to a study conducted by Chevy last year with focus groups representing all ages and income brackets. Participants were shown two photos taken in the same location; the only difference was one had a man in front of a truck, and the other had him standing in front of a car. The groups rated the guy in front of the truck as more handsome, rugged, dependable, resourceful, and someone they would want to date their daughter.

Whether that image plays into the increase in sales is unknown, but Peffer says stiff competition makes it a great time to buy a truck.

“We are seeing an acceleration of people trading in all types of vehicles,” he noted. “There is a propensity to shift to a truck, and there have never been more product offerings and choices in the market.”