MIKE COLIAS

In some showrooms, 'It feels like the old days'

Mike Colias covers General Motors for Automotive NewsMike Colias covers General Motors for Automotive News
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If you're looking to take the temperature of the Average Joe car buyer right now, Mike Bowsher offers pretty good perspective.

The owner of four dealerships in the Southeast is having his best holiday sales week in five years.

"It's crazy right now," Bowsher told me this week in his thick Georgia drawl. "It feels like the old days -- it's almost back to normal, whatever normal is."

Bowsher sells mainstream brands -- he has four Chevy and three Buick-GMC stores. And he sells them mostly in Georgia and Florida, where the scars of the Great Recession are deep and still fresh.

Unemployment in both states eclipses the 8.6 percent U.S. average. Florida's housing market was hammered worse than just about any and remains in the tank.

Yet Bowsher's customers are unfazed, his stores bustling. On Tuesday he sold 16 new pickups to a private business that does work for utility companies.

It's almost as if the American consumer has developed thick calluses when it comes to bad news.

Last August I set out to write a story about how the gyrating stock market was spooking car buyers. Washington's debt-ceiling theatrics and subsequent credit downgrade had been sending the Dow into 1,000-point weekly convulsions.

But dealer after dealer poured cold water on the idea, saying their customers were tuning it out.

The European debt crisis. Washington gridlock. Stubborn unemployment. The drip, drip, drip of bad housing-market news. None of those factors was potent enough to keep auto sales from marching steadily, albeit slowly, higher this year.

Whether Bowsher's holiday killing is a blip or a harbinger for 2012 is anybody's guess. Rosy forecasts can unravel fast. Some analysts are saying U.S. sales could reach 14 million units next year, up from this year's 12.7 million or 12.8 million.

And anyone who makes a living from the auto industry can take solace in a 2011 that could have been far worse.

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.

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