New-car sales, a key measure of Maryland's economic health, rolled up another big gain last month, far outpacing national sales during the same period, according to figures released yesterday by the state Motor Vehicle Administration.
Showroom activity was heavy from the beginning of the month to the end, as dealers chalked up 15.15 percent increase in sales over a strong May 1999.
For the nation as a whole, sales of cars and light trucks, including vans and sport utility vehicles, topped May 1999 by 2 percent.
"For our group, it was our best month ever," said Robert Russel, president of R&H; Motor Cars Ltd. in Owings Mills and past chairman of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association. R&H; operates five dealerships in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
"I've talked to other dealers around town and they are saying the same thing," he added.
Anirban Basu, director of applied economics for Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute, said the auto sales figures indicate that Maryland's economic strength and growth continue to surpass the nation's.
"This has been the case for at least two years," he said.
Basu noted that Maryland's growth is linked to a number of key industries, including technology, distribution, tourism, retailing and engineering.
"You can't point to any one industry and say, 'That drives the state's economy,' like you can with other states," he said.
The MVA reported that consumers bought 37,601 new vehicles last month. That compares with sales of 32,655 in the corresponding period of last year.
May marked the 19th consecutive month in which sales were higher than in the corresponding month of the previous year.
Sales were stronger last month than any May since 1991, when the MVA resumed releasing title-registration figures, which equate with sales.
Dealers had 23 selling days last month, compared with 20 in May 1999.
Light trucks, including sport utility vehicles, continued to sell well despite high gasoline prices. "There may have been a slight drop-off in SUV sales," said Russel. "If so, it was negligible."
According to Automotive News, an industry trade publication, five of the 10 best-selling vehicles during May were pickups or sport utility vehicles.
The Ford Taurus was the best-selling car.
Although state consumers are buying more vehicles, MVA records show that they spent a little more money on each purchase.
The average price for a new vehicle sold in May was $22,267, up $74 from April.