YAKIMA, Wash. — Before the Great Recession took hold, McKenna Motors in Union Gap sold about 50 cars a month.

When the economy hit rock bottom in 2008, that number dropped to 20 to 25 cars, said general manager Gilbert Bautista.

These days, the dealership sells about 30 to 35 cars a month.

That’s better, but Bautista is optimistic the business will return to the pre-recession numbers, especially since it is offering more used cars with fewer than 20,000 miles.

“That’s the stuff we’re selling the most right now,” Bautista said.

Overall, 2012 was a good year for most Yakima Valley car dealers.

Figures from the state Department of Revenue show that new and used car dealers in Yakima County saw sales increase during the first three quarters of 2012, with the third quarter showing the biggest hike yet.

During that quarter, car dealers reported taxable sales of $68 million. That’s a 21 percent increase from a year earlier — and well above the 5.7 percent increase Yakima County saw in taxable retail sales overall.

Earlier this month, carmakers announced sales had risen 13 percent from 2011 as unemployment eased, home sales and prices rose, and the average age of a car topped 11 years — a record that spurred many to trade in old vehicles.

Granted, not everyone saw an increase.

Tracy Frank, general manger for AC Auto Sales, a used car outlet with locations in Yakima and Union Gap, said sales in 2012 were slightly down from the year before.

He believes more shoppers were heading to new car dealerships offering rebates, incentives and low interest rates.

Buyer demand appears to lean toward new or late-model vehicles. At Steve Hahn Auto Group, which sells Volkswagen and Kia vehicles, new car sales are up by 25 percent over the same time a year ago, while its used vehicle sales went up a more modest 5 percent.

General manager Jerry Pruitt agreed that the car buyers were getting drawn in by competitive interest rates and vehicle manufacturer offers, such a down payment for a vehicle purchase.

And as people stopped purchasing new vehicles, the inventory for used vehicles dropped because people were not trading in their cars, he said.

As a result, Pruitt said, the prices for used cars increased.

With all the manufacturer offers and low rates, some shoppers felt they got a better deal purchasing a new vehicle with a low interest rate than getting a used one, Pruitt said.

Pent-up demand was also a factor.

Lee Peterson, owner of Lee Peterson Motors in Yakima, which sells new Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles as well as used cars, noticed that recent trade-ins from customers had 20,000 to 30,000 more miles then he’s seen in previous trade-ins.

“People just flat out wore out their cars,” he said. “Some of those people were on the sidelines in 2008 and 2009. They were worried about spending the money. They didn’t know where things were going.”

Dealers also believe that a solid agricultural season contributed to the increase in car sales.

“The truck business has been very good the last couple of years,” said Peterson, noting that many of those purchases came from those in the agriculture industry.

While there is no hard data yet on how local car dealers fared during the final quarter of 2012, the anecdotal evidence suggests that the upward trend continued through the end of the year.

And they expect that 2013 will be just as good, if not better.

“We didn’t have people stop driving cars, but there were an awful lot of people who put off buying cars,” Peterson said. “... That is what is driving the auto business.”

• Mai Hoang can be reached at 509-759-7851 or maihoang@yakimaherald.com.