TROY, MI – Payment-protection plans, introduced to offset job-loss fears among shoppers, may stimulate consumer interest but haven’t sparked a noticeable increase in vehicle sales.

So says Gary Allgeier, director-financial services for the Suburban Collection, a dealership group with 31 stores in Michigan and Florida.

Now offered by three auto makers, the assurance programs are intended to get buyers into auto dealerships. “But we’re not seeing that,” he says during a presentation to the Society of Automotive Analysts here. “We’re seeing more customers waiting on the fence.

“The programs may be bringing in traffic, but not sales,” he says. "Otherwise, we would have seen the SAAR (seasonally adjusted annual rate) move, and we’re not seeing that.”

The adjusted sales rate for light-vehicles was 9.83 million units in March. Last year, 13.2 million units were sold, down nearly 3 million from 2007.

The assurance programs offer varying degrees of financial protection to people who suffer a job loss after buying a vehicle.

Hyundai Motor America was the first to market with “Hyundai Assurance.” The auto maker provisionally will buy back its vehicles if owners lose their jobs within 12 months of purchase.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. subsequently have come out with their own versions.

GM’s “Total Confidence” runs through April 30 and covers nine payments of up to $500. Ford’s “Advantage Plan,” scheduled to run through June 1, makes good on 12 monthly payments of up to $700.

“But people who think they are going to lose their jobs are not buying cars,” Allgeier says.

Florida-based dealer Rick Case, however, credits Hyundai Assurance for helping retail sales at his six Hyundai stores, including the nation’s first.

Allgeier praises the programs, saying they at least get consumers thinking about buying a car when the anticipated economic recovery occurs. “It’s keeping us in their minds.”

Meanwhile, some people who are in the market for a new vehicle face challenges because of stricter credit requirements, he says. Lenders have become particularly insistent that would-be borrowers have a low debt-to-income ratio.

“If you have a high debt-to-income, you are not going to get a car loan, even if you have a good credit score,” Allgeier says.

He tells of a long-time customer who had a healthy 754 credit score but a debt level that was 54% of his annual income.

“This customer had bought eight cars over the last 16 years from one of our Florida stores, but when he went to finance a ninth car the bank turned him down because of his debt level,” Allgeier says.

It would be a welcome event if the industry’s sales recover and reach a mean of 14 million to 15 million units a year, Scott Eisenberg, a partner in Amherst Partners LLC, tells the analysts. Yet, that’s still 2 million fewer vehicles than were sold in the boom years earlier in the decade, he notes. “Two million vehicles represent a huge amount of revenue for the auto industry.”

Noting the current industry woes – plunging sales, credit challenges and GM and Chrysler LLC struggling to survive – Eisenberg says, “We’ve never seen these times in our working careers.”

The good news, he adds, is “we’ll see never see them again.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com