Nationally, auto sales have behaved like a yo-yo this summer, rising sharply in May, falling sharply in June and rising a bit in July. Analysts attribute the swings to higher gasoline prices that may have made consumers reluctant to shell out for big SUVs and automakers taking away -- and then bringing back -- sales incentives.

The Commerce Department doesn't publish local numbers for its retail sales results, but the local auto industry can be tracked by looking at sales tax receipts from local jurisdictions, although it is a couple of months slower than the national numbers.

Virginia in particular breaks out sales tax numbers by both county and type of store, so it is easy to see that Virginia auto sales were strong in the first three months of the year.

Sales rose 14.2 percent at Virginia dealers of motor vehicles and motorcycles from the first quarter of 2003, according to state tax data. Nationally, the Commerce Department said, sales of motor vehicles rose only 8 percent.

Dealers in Loudoun County and in Alexandria had particularly good quarters, with sales up 29 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

Sales rose 3.1 percent in Arlington, but fell a dismal 15.8 percent in Prince William County. The result in Prince William is particularly surprising; the number of auto dealers in the county actually rose to 27 this year from 24. And the county has strong population growth. Only time will tell whether the summer has brought Prince William's troubles to the rest of the region.

-- Neil Irwin