Matt Slater, left, and Gail Slater, of Ventnor, check out a 2013 Chevy Cruze with Bennett Chevrolet sales associate Andrew Long, of the Cardiff section of Egg Harbor Township.

Danny Drake

New Jersey sales of new vehicles reached 443,000 in 2012, an almost 6 percent increase that was aided by a late-year boost from Hurricane Sandy-related replacements.

Some estimates for 2013 are upbeat — prominent auto data company R.L. Polk & Co. recently predicted 7 percent growth in light vehicle sales.

In New Jersey and the region, some optimism is tempered by weak job growth, lingering economic uncertainty and tax increases that may affect consumer confidence.

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Jim Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailer, says 3 percent to 4 percent growth may be more realistic.

“January is a good month. December was a great month. If things continue on this pace, it’ll be a great year, but I think there’s enough uncertainty out there — at least until we get to the second quarter — this momentum will be a little slower than expected,” he said.

There are factors working in favor of the new car industry. The average vehicle is now 11 years old. And the rates of scrapping vehicles are growing, suggesting pent-up demand, Appleton said.

“That type of demand will drive sales, but if the economy doesn’t turn around and consumer confidence lags, people may put off that purchase another year,” he said.

Polk said 15.3 million light vehicles may be sold this year, some of that driven by manufacturers rolling out more new models and redesigns.

While the industry may return to 2007 levels by 2015, the company based in Southfield, Mich., said it does not expect a return to prerecession sales of 17 million cars for many years.

In South Jersey, some car dealerships are expecting modest growth this year. Some are expanding lots and renovating showrooms.

Paul Gentilini, co-owner of Gentilini Motors in Woodbine, expects a $4 million project to build a new Chevrolet dealership to start in March. The dealership will be built near Gentilini Ford on Route 550, expanding from a smaller Chevy lot on Washington Avenue.

“The industry analysts are all saying nationally there should be an increase. Spot markets in certain areas, like South Jersey and Cape May County, may struggle with that,” he said. “Depending on how quickly Hurricane Sandy damage can be repaired, I think that’s going to play a factor in the local market.”

Bob McCormick, general manager of Toyota-Scion of Vineland, said car shoppers are a little more confident now than they were four years ago.

“Having weathered that particular storm, they’re more confident of what the future holds for them, and we are, as well,” he said.

The dealership remodeled its facility in 2012, a “significant investment” to expand the showroom, service areas and waiting lounge, he said.

Steve Muldoon, owner of Bennett Chevrolet in Egg Harbor Township, said 2013 is hard to predict in the area, with the region’s economy and unemployment rate influencing sales the past few years.

“Locally, last year was a little bit of a struggle compared to two years prior,” he said. “Of course, all of us sold tons of cars after Hurricane Sandy, and we still see them coming in today. I think we’ll see them for the next few months.”

That may carry over into the first quarter and maybe the second, but not all year, he said.

“Most of the year was off from what we had hoped, but November and December were strong,” he said.

Appleton, of the state trade group, said December sales were up more than 11 percent from December 2011, mostly because of storm-related replacements.

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