The ‘Big If' factor

Some engineers from Magna came by today, showing off a new automatic decklid opener.

Magna predicts the global market for power decklids will quadruple from about 300,000 in 2009 to more than 1.2 million by 2013. If consumers downsize from their SUVs to cars, they're going to want the same features they've gotten used to, such as power liftgates, Magna says.

Magna's device is a nifty gizmo, opening and closing the trunk lid with the push of a button. These openers have been around for a while. But a lot of the ones on cars are repurposed from SUVs, crossovers and minivans and are larger and heavier than they need to be. Magna says theirs is a better fit for cars in size, weight, price and noise level.

But as the engineers extolled the virtues of their technology, my thoughts kept returning to that “Big If” in their forecast:

“If consumers downsize …”

A lot of automakers are planning to sell higher-contented small cars. Ford has probably bet more than others on a bright future for smaller cars, but Ford isn't alone. And a lot of suppliers are betting on providing more parts for smaller vehicles.

So far this year, though, U.S. consumers have reverted to light trucks after a fairly brief fling with smaller cars. Tomorrow's sales numbers will show whether that return to trucks continues.

Coming changes in CAFE rules mean that automakers will have to sell more small vehicles. But the question of whether consumers will downsize willingly or only do so when offered profit-sapping incentives by automakers is one of the biggest ifs hanging over the industry.