Before the economic meltdown in 2008, new car dealers in the Garden State were selling about 500,000 new cars and light trucks each year. After the downturn, sales numbers plummeted to about 340,000 annually, but they have been inching their way back up ever since.

In 2011, New Jersey’s new car dealers experienced sales of about 410,000 cars and light trucks. Experts have now entered the new year with positive predictions.

“We’re hoping to see continued growth, modest growth of five to perhaps seven or eight percent in 2012,” said Jim Appleton, President of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers.

Even with that increase, sales would still be 15 to 20 percent below what they were before the financial downturn.

“Given what we’ve been through, that looks pretty good to New Jersey new car dealers,” Appleton explained.

He said there are a couple of factors that point to increased new car sales in 2012.

First, consumer confidence has recently spiked. The index made a large surge in both November and December.

“Consumers who have put off buying a new car have finally decided they’re tired of putting money into their old cars, and they’re going to trade in their clunker for something new and more reliable,” Appleton said.

Another promising factor – credit has become more readily-available. New car financing and leasing programs have appeared with attractive rates.

As for car-buying trends in 2012, Appleton predicted the growth of fuel-efficient purchases would continue.

He said consumers aren’t necessarily buying the hybrid or electric car, but they are looking at and looking to purchase the most fuel-efficient vehicle that suits the family’s needs.

“In 2011, we saw a lot of movement out of the largest categories of vehicles into the next smaller category,” Appleton said.

As long as gas prices remain at the current levels, Appleton said he only sees a slow growth in the market share for electric and hybrid vehicles.