Maryland's retail auto industry started the new year the way it ended 1995 -- sputtering along in low gear.
New car and truck sales were off 18.1 percent last month compared with January 1995, according to registration figures released yesterday by the Motor Vehicle Administration.
The blizzard of Jan. 6-7 was the major factor. Most dealerships in the state were closed two or three days as they tried to dig out from snow that reached above the bumpers on most vehicles on their lots.
But some dealers saw the snow as a blessing. They say it sparked a buying frenzy in four-wheel-drive trucks and sport utility vehicles that helped make up for a lot of the lost car sales.
Five of the six best selling vehicles in the country last month were trucks, including sport utility vehicles that feature four-wheel-drive.
The wrath of Mother Nature is credited also with the Jeep Cherokee's debut on the list of the nation's 10 top selling vehicles list for the first time.
The Jeep bumped Saturn from the list last month as it took the 10th place.
"I can't ever remember the Cherokee being in the top 10," said John Ellerbusch, sales manager of Easton Chrysler Jeep on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
"But it was an extremely popular vehicle last month. We couldn't keep them on the lot.
"We still can't keep them on the lot. We got six in two days ago and we have one left. It was the only thing that kept our doors open last month," said Mr. Ellerbusch, noting that the sales of its other products, Chryslers and Plymouths, were off sharply.
"Trucks is where the action was last month," said John Sophocles, general manager of Jerry's Chevrolet in Parkville. "There was a tremendous spike in the sales of four-wheel-drive trucks and sport utility vehicles. It nearly made up for the lost car sales."
Marylanders bought 23,622 new cars and trucks in January, according to the MVA. In January 1995, Marylanders bought 28,845 new vehicles, the best January in five years according to the MVA.
The decline here -- the eighth consecutive month of lower sales than in the comparable periods of the previous year -- compares with a 2.3 percent gain by dealers across the country.
At least one dealer viewed the state's registration figures with skepticism. John Fratta, sales manager at Ernie Swanson Oldsmobile on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie, said he thought most dealers did worse than the numbers indicated. He wondered if the figures were inflated by fleet sales.
"Retail sales weren't that good last month," Mr. Fratta said. "I've talked to a half dozen other Oldsmobile dealers and more than a dozen dealers selling other models, and they all say business took a real beating last month."
James Lang, a spokesman for the Motor Vehicle Administration, said the registration figures include fleet sales, but he was unable to say how many.
Used car sales were off 16.5 percent. Dealers sold 31,730 previously owned vehicles last month, compared with 38,005 in the like part of 1995.