The 2000 models are here and, because of the millenium milestone, there's potential for another awesome sales year.

The approaching millenium already is making a difference in the new-vehicle marketplace, what with so many customers placing added significance on a 2000 model.

With 1999 all but certain to rack up a new all-time record for annual new-vehicle sales, about 17 million units, analysts might be betting on an "inevitable" downturn for 2000.

This, after all, is supposed to be a cyclical industry. "Too hot not to cool down," in the words of songwriter Cole Porter.

But 2000 is not like 1989 or 1987, the years following the last two huge sales years that saw vehicle sales of more than 16 million units.

Rather, 2000 is a first of firsts (or first of seconds?), say dealers nationwide, offering a timeline "spike" not unlike the years following World Wars I and II or the end of the mid-East oil embargoes of the 1970s and 1980s.

"The year 2000 offers big and small dealers a golden opportunity," says NADA's incoming chairman, Harold B. Wells, 67, a five-brand GM and full-line Chrysler Corp. dealer in Whiteville, NC.

"We're coming off an unexpectedly high 1999, when nearly all dealers did well in sales and profits. But 2000 is a year everyone has been waiting for as a milestone for a new millenium and a new century.

"I expect lots of folks will want to be first with a 2000 model, and that's a positive sign for the new-car business in the next few years."

Mr. Wells' optimism is shared by his counterpart at AIADA, Barbara Vidmar, whose franchises in Pueblo, CO, include Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep, Honda, Mazda, Oldsmobile and Volkswagen.

Mrs. Vidmar, whose business partner is her husband William, points out that the 2000 models represents a contemporary styling surge for both new car and truck models.

She says it's also affected new and remodeled dealership buildings "in keeping with the new century and the uplifted mood it brings."

She adds her dealership has already done extremely well with the new VW Beetle as well as the restyled Honda Civic and Dodge Neon.

"I'm thrilled at being the first woman to head a national dealer organization," says Mrs. Vidmar, 52. "2000 is bringing quite a few firsts for the dealers - the first NADA convention in Orlando (Jan. 22-25) and the array of new models with the 2000 label. It should be a really super year."

Her reference to new buildings or expansions of existing buildings resonates with thousands of dealers.

Various "Project 2000s" brought about construction programs along many auto rows, all attempting to reflect modern turn-of-the-century tastes.

Buick's "flagship" stores with signature towers were built in Madison, WI; Fort Wayne, IN; and Farmington Hills, MI.

A state-of-the-art Fletcher Jones Mercedes-Benz store was erected in a Southwestern architectural style in Newport Beach, CA.

The Stu Evans dealerships in two Detroit suburbs built separate Lincoln and Mercury showrooms - a first for the Ford division. Wilde Honda in Milwaukee opened a unique "angled" showroom building.

Armory Automotive Family in Albany, NY, built a glitzy new Suzuki "theme" center that takes its cues from a theme park. Saturn dealers in Chino, CA, and Columbus, OH, opened enlarged dealerships for the new LS midsize model.

"2000 is going to be a record year for Saturn, with our new LS model right on time for the new century," says owner Jim Trainer of Saturn of Chino Valley. "But 2000 is spiking our L-series compacts, as well. Being first with a 2000 model is hot stuff out here."

Ford's new 2000 Focus subcompact is giving off similar vibes, reports Michael Seelye, owner of Don Seelye Ford, Kalamazoo, MI.

"We were getting orders for 2000 Focuses and Mustangs long before we had any in stock," says Mr. Seelye. "A new car like Focus or a new SUV like Ford Excursion goes hand-in-hand with the newness of 2000 itself."

The second highest seller of Dodge cars and trucks in 1998, Rob Robbins, owner of Crestwood Dodge, Garden City, MI, says the revamped 2000 Neon was a "big hit" after its mid-year debut.

He's looking for a major boost on other 2000 models, like Intrepid, when Dodge rolls out a new national ad campaign this fall.

Jan. 1, 2000, brings nothing but optimism from the consolidators, although dire predictions that their growth would reduce dealership ranks failed to materialize.

Group 1 Automotive Chairman and CEO Ben Hollingsworth, Jr., announces purchases of the group's first dealerships in the Boston and New Orleans markets in August.

He plans to raise his annual revenues to the $4 billion mark with purchases in 2000.

He says, "2000 model vehicles are better-looking and better-built than ever, and the dealerships we have or are looking at buying are all top-notch. That's a good sign for us and the industry."

Mr. Wells voices some concerns about the future of "country" dealers like himself amid the wave of urban consolidations and Internet Web sites.

But, sharing a point he plans to make in his NADA convention address, he says:

"Didn't a noted industry analyst forecast that the dealer count would fall to 8,000 by the year 2000? Never happened, did it?

"We still have more than 20,000 franchised dealers, with darn little attrition through the 1990s, and all are doing quite well, thank you."