RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Sales of cars in the U.S. are slowly rebounding, though they're still not at the peaks hit a decade ago. In 2000 and 2001, more than 17 million automobiles were sold in this country. Last year, that number dropped to just under 12 million. Many analysts, dealers and executives believe the industry is actually healthier selling fewer cars, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON: So I'm sitting here at my desk. Now, let's pretend I sell sharpened pencils.

Now you'd think I'd make more money if I sold 17 million pencils as opposed to say twelve. But if you change the pencils to cars that logic falls completely apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENCIL SHARPENER)

JEREMY ANWYL: That 16 to 17 million sales level that we experienced was not a normal situation.

GLINTON: Jeremy Anwyl is CEO of the car website Edmunds.com. He's says a lot of the things that kept car sales high we're not going to see again.

ANWYL: We saw over 20 years of declining interest rates. Car companies were pouring more and more incentives into the market place. A lot of the appreciation in housing was being taken out by consumers with second loans and then used to buy cars.

GLINTON: Also, because of work rules, it was often cheaper for the car companies to pump out cars rather than slow down production. Those extra cars, they almost gave away. Anwyl says the economy has fundamentally changed, and with it, the auto industry.

ANWYL: So I think about a more normal marketplace where lenders are looking for 20 percent down, where interest rates are probably going to be climbing over the next five years, not declining. That getting up to 15 to 16 million is going to require, really, a growth in population.

GLINTON: So why does it matter if you sell 17 million cars rather than 12 million? I got a word for you jobs: jobs at the parts supplier, the factory, the transportation company that ships the cars, the dealers that sell them, and on and on. Tammy Darvish runs car dealerships in Florida, Maryland and Virginia. Listen to how she answers when I ask her how many dealerships she runs.

TAMMY DARVISH: Let's see - Toyota, Lexus - two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

GLINTON: She kept counting for a while. Eventually Darvish finally arrives at an answer.

DARVISH: Thirty-one franchises, 21 roof tops.

GLINTON: Darvish says she's not putting up the sales numbers the way she did a few years ago. However...

DARVISH: We're probably much better businessmen and women than we were three years ago. We're paying a whole lot more attention to expenses, expenses control, collaborating between all of our business partners.

GLINTON: When Tammy Darvish says collaborating with business partners, she means the car companies - Detroit.

DARVISH: They spent years, sort of, jamming cars. There was a lot of pressure for us to carry inventory levels that were ridiculous. And then, you know, you're constantly in fire sale mode, and - to dump cars and you're willing to take losses on them just to get them off your inventory.

GLINTON: Most of the dealers you talk to will say the restructuring in Detroit has affected the whole industry. Huddy Hyman is also a car dealer in Virginia. He says he's streamlined business, but he won't go on a crazy hiring spree when sales really pick up. And he believes they will.

HUDDY HYMAN: You may not see 17 million, but you may see a real, real healthy 14, 15 million new car sales. And the way people operate today, versus the way they operated four or five years ago, they're going to say, well, we can really make a good profit at that. It'll be better for us.

GLINTON: Hyman says he just hopes the industry doesn't forget the lesson it just got finished learning.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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