The year was 1997, and Lexus of Charleston had opened not so long ago on Rivers Avenue. All the rage was a first-time carlike SUV called the RX.

Oh, and one more thing: The dealership would be honored with its first "Elite of Lexus" award. It would mark the beginning of a lengthy, maybe even unprecedented, winning streak.

The dealership would evolve over the years, moving in 2006 into a much larger building on Savannah Highway at Melrose Drive. The Lexus brand would grow to be the largest luxury seller in the U.S. (since surpassed).

But one thing didn't change. Lexus of Charleston repeatedly garnered one of the yearly Elite honors, the carmaker's top award for dealership customer service and general excellence.

Lexus of Charleston's spring notification of an Elite designation has become as much of a seasonal rite as the president or someone else famous throwing out a ceremonial pitch for baseball season.

Well, it's happened again. The West Ashley dealership recently gained Elite of Lexus status for 2013, one of 59 outlets in the Southeast and 185 nationwide. Most impressive, it marked 18 straight years of claiming the sought-after title.

"It's quite an honor; 18 years in a row is a feat not many others have accomplished," said David Yarborough, general manager of Lexus of Charleston.

Sales are a sizable component of the Elite criteria, and both Lexus as a company and the local dealership had good years in 2013, he explained. The dealership posted 938 sales in 2010. By last year, the volume had risen to 1,729 sales.

"We had a nice jump in business, especially pre-owned," he said.

Year-over-year, new car sales increased by 75 vehicles, while used car transactions surged by 300 models.

"We went to a market-based pricing," Yarborough said. In an online world, shoppers won't even look at a dealer's used cars for sale unless the price is at or near the bottom. With the market-based system, "You price your used cars to sell from Day One. We're very aggressive on them," he said.

On the new-car front, the RX led the way in sales last year. "The RX is always the biggest seller," Yarborough said. "It is the most popular luxury crossover."

Another aspect of the Elite awards is determining how well the dealership treats the people who buy cars, trade them in or bring in a vehicle for parts or service. It's measured in the Customer Service Index. CSI is "absolutely first and foremost in our minds," Yarborough said.

Lexus of Charleston ended 2013 with a 100 percent record on the new car surveys, which are a part of the CSI formula. "We are number 1 (companywide) in new car CSI. That's hard to do," Yarborough said.

The general manager said it's not difficult to motivate the dealership's more than 50 employees including salespeople. "You know, I think it's in our culture," he said.

When Lexus of Charleston opened, it was part of Gene Reed's automotive holdings. Reed sold his stable of dealerships in 2010 to the privately-held Charlotte company run by automotive and NASCAR mogul Rick Hendrick. "We are part of the Hendrick Automotive Group," the general manager said.

Separately, the dealership reached a milestone in 2013 as the largest Lexus store by volume in South Carolina, he said.

As in past years, Lexus of Charleston will honor its workforce with a catered dinner at the dealership June 18. "We recognize the employees for accomplishments during the year," he said, as well as announce top individual awards for sales, service and parts.

Lexus, too, wines and dines the Elite winners nationwide at a gala in early June. Yarborough said this year's soiree is in Aspen, Colo.

According to Mike Warren, general sales manager, the Lexus of Charleston crew is conditioned to serve the customer. "That is who were are and what we do," he said.

For instance, dealerships that earn the Elite of Lexus award must score near the top in every department - not just sales but "service, parts, accounting," he said. "It's all about our people." Warren says the choice of associates starts at the beginning. "We hire nice people," he said. Dealerships can train employees but "we can't give them the personality."

Warren said, "Everybody is totally engaged. It's more than a business; it's a family atmosphere."

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Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.