When the curtain comes down on 2012 in two weeks, most local and California auto dealers will be looking back on a most successful year.
Area car stores are seeing good sales numbers, and the Sacramento-based California New Car Dealers Association is projecting about 1.6 million new auto sales including fleet sales by the time the year's last sales contract is signed on Dec. 31.
That would be a dramatic 24 percent improvement from about 1.29 million units sold in 2011.
But the road back from recession is long.
"We're getting there, but we're not quite where we were," said Peter Welch, president of the state dealers association. "Historically, from 1999 to 2008, we were having years between 1.8 million and 2.2 million, and our rolling average over that time was 1.9 million.
"While 1.6 million this year is nice, that's still 300,000 off our 10-year rolling average pre-recession. So, we've still got a ways to go."
Even so, the current state of affairs is a massive improvement over 2008, when more than a dozen area dealerships closed doors amid the recession and a credit crunch that paralyzed many dealerships nationwide.
The Greater Sacramento New Car Dealers Association's annual holiday luncheon four years ago had the ambience of a wake. Glassy-eyed dealers bemoaned the departure of long-time colleagues and competitors.
Katina Rapton, president and general manager of Mel Rapton Honda along the Capital City Freeway in Sacramento, remembers that time.
"We moved smack dab in the middle of that mess," she said, recalling the 2009 Super Bowl weekend dealership move from south of Capital City Freeway to its current site on Fulton Avenue. "It was a very nervous time."
Today, it's a different story.
"We're doing well. Business is good. All in all, from a volume standpoint, we're certainly having our best year," she said.
Rick Niello, president of the Sacramento-based Niello Co., operator of 11 mostly high-end Sacramento-area dealerships and an Infiniti store in Concord, said 2012 sales are "up 25 percent across the board to date and December historically has always been our best month of the year."
David Rodgers, senior vice president and general manager of the Sullivan Automotive Group, which oversees John L. Sullivan Chevrolet and Roseville Toyota in the Roseville Automall, said the auto mall is on track to post 2008 sales numbers.
That's significant, because while 2008 was a dreadful year for local dealership closings, the big sales plunge occurred in 2009. The California New Car Dealers Association says there were 1.44 million new car sales statewide in 2008, but that dropped to 1.03 million in 2009.
Rodgers said Sullivan's Toyota store has been doing consistently well, and the Chevrolet dealership "has been doing OK, kind of skipping along right now."
Rodgers echoed other dealers in citing more-upbeat buyers and improved economic conditions compared with just a few years ago.
"Overall (consumer) confidence seems to be at a pretty high level. Pent-up demand really is the main driver," he said. "With strong incentives, low interest rates and banks again competing for business, it's making for a more healthy industry."
State dealers association president Welch agreed, noting that "in this area, government and housing were hit harder than other pockets of the state. Back in the recession, people who weren't getting raises or worried about getting laid off from their jobs were understandably reluctant to take on a large-scale obligation like buying a car.
"Thankfully, some of that pressure is off and confidence is up."
Car sellers said consumer priorities have changed since the recession.
"It used to be that styling, utility and safety were the top three reasons that people gave for buying a car. Now, with gas pretty much close to four bucks a gallon, (fuel) mileage has worked its way into the top three," Welch said.
Perhaps the best illustration of that is, through three quarters of this year, the fuel-sipping Toyota Prius was the top-selling vehicle in California, according to the state dealers association. With 46,380 registrations, the Prius was outpacing such long-time monster sellers as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Honda Civic.
John Driebe, who sells Nissan, Infiniti, Mazda and Fisker brands in the Elk Grove Automall, cited another major difference between now and 2008: "There's so much new on the market that it's a good time for people who have been holding off.
"You have so many more choices now in terms of hybrids, electric, clean diesels, drivetrains, great standard features. For the average consumer, it's a wonderful market."
Shoppers strolling Sacramento-area lots last week agreed that now is a good time to be car browsing, and they repeatedly stressed fuel mileage and value.
"We've had our car for almost 10 years now, and it runs great, so I was going to hold off for another year," said Roseville's Jerome Bailey as he walked the Future Ford Lincoln lot in the Roseville Automall. "But the deals right now are so good that I felt like I would be stupid to hold off any longer.
"We're trying to be careful. The price has to be right, and the gas mileage has to be 30 (miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving)."
At Maita Chevrolet in the Elk Grove Automall, Sacramentan Charlotte Jackson was looking to buy her first new car in eight years.
"I've been shopping and shopping and shopping for weeks," she said. "My husband says I need to just do it. I've seen a lot of great cars that I love, but I'm really going to push hard for the best deal.
"I've waited this long, I'm not going to jump at the first offer."
Jackson said she was looking for a sporty compact or a midsize sedan "and it has to get good (fuel) mileage. It about broke my heart to fill up the tank when gas was so high (in October)."