There is a new sign that Maryland's economy might be heading down the road to recovery.
Consumers -- many of whom had been keeping a close rein on their pocketbooks -- went on a spending spree last month, boosting new-car sales in the state by an estimated 14.5 percent compared with March 1991, according to registration figures released yesterday by the Motor Vehicle Administration.
March sales also were nearly 50 percent ahead of February's pace.
MVA's figures, which track the number of new vehicles registered in the state, are the clearest indication of new-car sales, state officials said. The auto industry does not report new-car sales in the state.
According to the MVA statistics, 22,352 new vehicles were registered in Maryland last month, up from 19,521 cars and trucks a year earlier and 15,153 vehicles in February.
"This is a very good sign that Maryland is easing out of the recession," said Michael A. Conte, director of the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Center for Business and Economic Studies.
Mr. Conte said consumers traditionally "spring for a new car when they are optimistic about the future, have money in the bank, confidence in their jobs, or when they have received a raise or a bonus or expect to receive a raise or a bonus."
Although the MVA figures suggest that consumers are buying more cars, they apparently are buying fewer luxury options or taking advantage of manufacturers' incentives to reduce their investment. The average purchase price of a new car last month was $15,744, down from $16,238 in February, according to the MVA, while the average price of a used car held steady at slightly more than $4,000.
The total value of new vehicles registered last month was $351.9 million, up from $246.1 million in February.