Solar power. Biotech. Energy storage. These areas have generated some big stock winners so far in 2009. Equally hot, however, are the publicly traded auto dealerships.

I can't blame you if you're surprised. From Saab to Chrysler to General Motors, the automaker field is littered with dead bodies. You know business is bad when Ford (NYSE:F) outshines its domestic competitors by not going bankrupt, and Toyota Motor (NYSE:TM) reports its first annual loss in, well, ever. This is a brutal environment for car sales, plain and simple.

So how is it possible that no less than four dealers -- Asbury Automotive Group (NYSE:ABG), Group 1 Automotive (NYSE:GPI), Lithia Motors, and Sonic Automotive (NYSE:SAH) -- have more than doubled in share price in 2009?

The independent auto dealers are definitely hurting, but it’s the manufacturers' own franchises that are shuttering dealerships most dramatically. In many cases, that leaves the independents as the last man standing in a given market. The CEO of Oregon-based Lithia Motors illustrated this process last month by pointing to a Eugene-area Jeep dealership that will close, leaving the franchise to Lithia, which already sells Chrysler and Dodge brands.

Of course, the financing of auto sales will remain challenging as long as the credit markets continue in their catatonic state, but some relief has come via the Federal Reserve's TALF program. CarMax (NYSE:KMX) tapped these low-cost funds in a near-$1 billion loan package that was sold to investors last month. Keep an eye on the securitization space to make sure the appetite for auto loans doesn't stall out.

As to those soaring share prices, I should note that these stocks have doubled in pretty much the least graceful way possible. Sonic Automotive, the most debt-addled of the group, experienced a greater than 95% peak-to-trough plunge prior to its recent recovery. Less leveraged players like CarMax and AutoNation (NYSE:AN) haven't seen quite as spectacular year-to-date gains, but their solvency was also never in doubt.

When it comes to the auto dealer group, those latter two firms are the only ones that I would seriously consider for my own portfolio. Then again, my tolerance for debt is very low. Your mileage may vary.

Further auto Foolishness:

  • We told you the end was nigh for GM.
  • Chrysler's bankruptcy is playing out like a bad movie.
  • Ford's getting a pretty raw deal.

CarMax is an Inside Value recommendation. Test-drive any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.