Production recovery grinds ahead in low gear

I'm looking forward to a happy 2011. Wish Joe Langley was, too.

To be fair, it's not his job to be a cheerful optimist. As an analyst for IHS Automotive, it's his job to be a cold, hard realist.

So, looking into his crystal ball, Langley says things like: "Until the underlying fundamentals are taken care of -- particularly housing and unemployment -- we might be stuck in a sideways pattern."

It's his way of saying we're in a rut.

Take the last three months of this year. His research firm says North American vehicle production will total 2.8 million units. That's up just 0.9 percent from the year-earlier period.

It breaks down like this:

• Honda will raise Q4 production 6.1 percent;

• GM: 5.3 percent;

• Chrysler: 2.0 percent;

• Ford: -0.3 percent (Langley says Ford has become a "real bellwether");

• Nissan: 8.5 percent;

• and Toyota: -18.3 percent (largely because of NUMMI's closing)

And next year? Well, IHS projects U.S. vehicle sales of 13.2 million units -- up from this year's likely 11.5 million units. Nothing to get excited about.

Langley says wait for 2012.