Are happier days returning to the nation's top dealerships? Yes…and no.

The good news outweighs the bad. While new-vehicle sales (and used-vehicle sales) for dealerships on the Ward's Dealer 500 continue to trend downward, the average revenue per new vehicle sold is up nearly $1,000 – driven by the strong performances of dealerships selling luxury and high-end vehicles.

Another positive trend: After two consecutive years of overall revenue decline (following a record $62.5 billion in 2002), the Ward's Dealer 500 annual ranking of the top individual dealerships by total revenue shows an increase in that of $600 million, from $59.2 billion in 2003 to $59.8 billion in 2004.

As a result, average revenue per dealership is up to $119.5 million, an increase of $1 million. But that pales in comparison to the giddy days of the late 1990s, when the average Ward's 500 dealership increased its total revenue by more than $10 million for several consecutive years to a record $124.8 million in 2002.

In a tough and competitive market, the top stores nonetheless are holding their own. Their per-dealership averages are nearly four times higher than the average dealership's total revenues of $33 million, according to the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

The Ward's Dealer 500 also depends on the strength of the fixed operations departments to protect against downturns in vehicle sales. Although body shop revenue is down $170 million from 2003 (more than half of the dealerships on the ranking do not have body shops), parts and accessories revenue increased $106 million while service revenue jumped $25 million.

Finance and insurance revenue also increased by more than $30 million, as more of the top dealerships move to a menu-based selling strategy.

Geographically, there has been little change since the late 1990s as to where the Ward's Dealer 500 dealerships are located.

California, Texas and Florida still have the most dealerships. In the last few years, Nevada and Arizona, with Las Vegas and Phoenix being the fastest-growing metropolitan areas, have increased their totals, while, rustbelt states of Michigan and Ohio have lost dealerships on the Ward's 500.

In a first, two Hawaiian dealerships, Mercedes-Benz of Honolulu and Cutter Ford, are on the list.

cbanks@primediabusiness.com