The top honor for best-selling new vehicle in 2011 in Summit County went to a Ford model that will soon be completely redesigned.


Sales overall rose in 2011 from the depths of the Great Recession just a couple years ago, and Northeast Ohio dealers say they expect even better figures this year. Rising new car sales are a sign of an improving economy.


The Ford Escape took top honors in Summit County sales in 2011 with 692 of the compact crossover SUVs sold locally, according to figures from the Northeast Ohio Auto Dealers Association. The Hyundai Sonata came in second with 683 new cars sold, with the Ford Fusion sedan taking third place with 608 sales.


“I couldn’t imagine a dealer that didn’t have growth in 2011 and [isn’t] looking optimistically at 2012,” said Tom Dunn, general manager at Fred Martin Superstore in Barberton and president of the Akron-based Northeast Ohio dealers group.


New car sales have been perking up in part because the nation’s auto fleet is at a historically high age — 10-plus years old on average — and is in need of replacement, Dunn said.


“People need a car,” he said.


Sales were also buoyed because it is becoming easier for people to finance vehicles, with leasing making a strong comeback, Dunn said.


“There are more purchases than leases for the majority of brands,” he said. “Leasing brings more people into the showroom. In the last six months it’s really stepped up.”


Sales in the 21-county area of Northeast Ohio in 2011 rose 18.6 percent to 201,697 vehicles compared with 170,124 in 2010, according to the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers’ Association.


Northeast Ohio sales outpaced overall national sales, the association said. Nationally, there were about 12.8 million new light vehicles sold in 2011, up more than 10 percent from 2010, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. Forecasts call for 2012 sales to hit 13.5 million to 13.9 million.


While new car and light truck sales have shown significant growth the past couple of years, U.S. totals remain far below the record level of 17 million before the recession hit in full in 2008, sending sales plunging to 10.6 million in 2009. The recession was part of a global financial crisis whose aftermath is still being felt.


Ford was the top-selling brand in Northeast Ohio in 2011 with 36,073 sales, up 19.9 percent from a year ago, the Cleveland-area dealers association reported.


Chevrolet came in second with 30,704 sales, up 33.5 percent from 2010. Honda sales dipped less than 1 percent in 2011 from 2010, but were still good enough for a third place showing with 17,197 vehicles.


Toyota sales in the region fell to 16,408, an 11.8 percent decline from 18,601 in 2010.


Some Japanese makes and models were hurt in 2011 because of an earthquake and tsunami — one of the five most powerful earthquakes on record — that hit on March 11 and devastated production in that country in addition to killing nearly 16,000 people.


Both dealers groups are pointing to the upcoming annual Cleveland Auto Show to bring more buyers into showrooms this year.


The annual show, coordinated by the Cleveland-area dealers association, kicks off Feb. 25 and runs for nine days at the I-X Center next to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.


Dealers throughout the area typically see a strong sales boost right around the time of the annual show, said Lou Vitantonio, president of the Cleveland dealers group.


The show brings in hundreds of thousands of people from the region to look at the exhibits featuring new cars and trucks, upcoming models, concept vehicles and more. The association has said it expects this year’s show to be bigger than the last couple of shows, with more than 900 vehicles and at least seven “ride and drive” programs. Information is available online at www.clevelandautoshow.com.


Among the new vehicles unveiled recently was the 2013 Ford Escape, which will soon succeed what was Summit County’s best-selling model last year.


Ford showed off the less-truck-like 2013 Escape at the Los Angeles Auto Show, with production slated to start this year. Joseph Stefanini, vice president of Montrose Auto Group, said Escape sales were strong in 2011 in large part because “they were available and sitting on the ground.”


He said the Montrose group had a strong 2011, and he has a positive outlook for sales this year.


“I feel very optimistic,” Stefanini said.


Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com