Waikato is sliding into pole position as national car sales figures show Hamiltonians' love for the motor vehicle is streets ahead of the rest of the pack.
The Motor Trade Association has crunched the numbers on 2013 car sales, both new and used imports, and found Hamilton's growth had accelerated past most of the competition.
New car sales were 5258, a gain year-on-year of 13 per cent. The rest of the country came in with an average 7 per cent gain. Hamilton nipped in ahead of the national average for used imported car sales too, with 6052 cars changing hands, translating to a 27 per cent increase on 2012. The rest of the nation experienced a 26 per cent increase.
While several provinces beat Waikato's sales growth, most suffered a drop in the new car segment, many into negative figures.
Auckland and Christchurch did top Waikato, up 25 and 30 per cent respectively.
In the commercial sector, used vehicle purchases had Waikato's growth skyrocketing 132 per cent to 408, beating out an already impressive 73 per cent growth in the rest of the nation.
Motor Trade Association spokesman Ian Stronach said car sales were the "growth story for 2013, if you exclude house prices".
"Everyone's been surprised at how strong it was last year," he said.
"It's been startling across the board for the Hamilton-Waikato area."
Historically, Hamilton and the Waikato had tended to be ahead of the trend, either negative or positive, when it came to car sales, he said.
Mr Stronach said much of the growth was driven by consumer confidence.
"There's been a lot of repressed demand through people lacking confidence in the last couple of years.
"If people feel confident, they act and buy, and it stimulates the economy and that flows through and more people feel confident." He said companies that had been holding off on renewing or buying commercial fleets had finally taken the plunge after sitting tight during the tough economic times of the past few years.
Farmers too were looking to renew vehicles on the back of two years of good milk price payouts.
"We've noticed that in other areas for last year where there was good dairying income."
Mr Stronach is predicting a 5 per cent market growth for car sales this year, which he said would be driven by confidence in the economy and solid population growth from Taupo north.
Automobile Association spokesman Andrew Bayliss said new car registrations nationally were the highest in 2013 since 1984.
"People have more confidence in the economy; manufacturers are now being very, very keen about their prices; you are getting a lot more new features in new cars, a lot of safety, and comfort and hi-tech features.
Ben van den Engel, the managing director for Ebbett Waikato Group Ltd which holds franchises for Holden, Skoda, Audi, Volkswagon, and covers Nissan and Toyota as a group, said most of the big retailers had predicted strong growth for 2013.
"Notwithstanding the drought, milk prices have been very strong and they've been doing very well, and in Hamilton that's always going to be reflected.
"And also our proximity to Auckland - I think we do tend to feed a bit off Auckland." He said the internet meant every centre had to be competitive in terms of pricing but Hamilton might have the edge in other ways.
"I would say that still in Hamilton people may get slightly more personal service just because the market is smaller than in Auckland.
"We do get some comments like: hey it's quite nice to deal in a more relaxed environment."
Mr van den Engel said the group had seen the strongest growth in SUV (sports utility vehicle) sales, which reflected a national trend towards the segment, with growth of 27 per cent.
"It goes a little bit against the common belief that everybody is moving to very small cars. They're actually not.
"They're moving out of big four-door sedans and moving into SUV vehicles but quite often those SUVs are as big as the car they had or bigger."
He said that overall, the numbers seemed to reflect the fact that Hamilton was a great place to live economically.
"People are enjoying Hamilton; they are wanting to live here and that is also impacting business and the economic outlook in Hamilton.
"And certainly I think the proximity to Auckland and the strong farming sector [mean that] Hamilton's got a pretty bright future."
Ideal Cars Hamilton Ltd owner Shayne O'Hagan said he frequently saw out-of-towners come to his dealership.
"They come from Taranaki and we see a few from Auckland, would you believe." He said it was easier for the Auckland visitors to move between yards in Hamilton, and the service was probably more customer-focused.
"When you do business in Hamilton if you do bad business, people find out pretty quickly."
Metro Motors director Darrell Nicholas said sales in 2013 compared with 2012 were "completely better".
He said about half of his customers were from out of town, with Hamilton's competitive prices and wide selection a drawcard.
The only segment in which vehicle sales growth in Waikato did not beat the national average was in motorbikes, with its 14 per cent growth lagging behind a 22 per cent national increase in sales.
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