DETROIT – The number of U.S. car dealerships increased slightly last year, says automotive consultancy Urban Science.

The count rose to 17,767 stores, an increase of 108 over 2010. That may seem small, but a “normal year” sees a 2% decline in dealerships, making the 0.6% increase significant, says Urban Science Vice President John Frith.   

The 2011 store count would have been less than 2010’s, were it not for the opening of 135 Fiat dealerships, marking the Italian brand’s return to the U.S.

Yet, sales per store, or throughput, averaged only 146 cars for Fiat dealers, compared with a national average of 719 in 2011, up from 656 the year before.

Fiat dealers delivered 19,769 units in the U.S. last year, according to WardsAuto. That’s about half of what the auto maker had hoped. But Frith sees better days ahead for the nameplate.

“You have to remember, it’s only selling one model (the 500 subcompact) right now and it is a start-up brand,” he says. “Fiat plans to add new models, so I would expect the throughput to go up. Currently, it is less than average, but more than some brands.”

One of those is Lincoln. Its dealers averaged 87 sales per store last year.

Overall, today’s dealership network has become stable and profitable, Frith says. That is in contrast to the volatility of three years ago, when General Motors and Chrysler eliminated thousands of stores as part of a post-bankruptcy reorganization plan.

“Hopefully, we’ll never see the likes of that again,” he says.

In a sign of Chrysler’s recovery, it added 50 Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep outlets in 2011.That contrasts with the 734 stores it roped in during the big dealer roundup of 2009. Back then, Chrysler took aim at outlets representing a single brand. The new stores that opened last year mainly are combine facilities selling and servicing Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles under one roof, Frith says.

He adds, “We have a stabilized, right-sized dealership network that has increased year-over-year for only the second time since we started this census.”

But he warns that to maintain profitability, auto makers and dealers “need to resist the urge to abandon the expense controls and processes instituted over the past few years.”

Urban Science forecasts average car sales per dealership will increase to 785 units this year, predicated on light-vehicle sales increasing to about 14 million.

By state, California had the largest increase in dealerships, with 31 added there last year.  New Jersey was next with 10 new stores. Michigan made the list with four. 

sfinlay@wardsauto.com