Wham! Zap! Splat! Quake and debate make sales deflate

The U.S. auto market is going to get better this year. But it won't be as good as it was going to be.

This has been a tough year all around, a year that has conspired to throw one obstacle after another under the feet of an auto market trying to climb out of a hole.

At one point, momentum was building for a breakout year.

Wham, a spike in fuel prices. Pow, a truly terrible earthquake/tsunami/radiation trifecta hitting Japan. Zap, a wobbly economic recovery hobbled by slow job growth and a millstone of a housing sector.

Splat, throw in political debate about whether to focus on deficit spending or recovery that degenerates into spectacle and polarization. Suddenly, this year is a really lousy environment for anybody contemplating a new-car purchase.

You can focus on the timid souls that got scared out of the marketplace. Or see only the doggedly determined types more stubborn than weeds who persevered through all.

But either way, there would have been more sales this year without these headwinds. Without all the wham, pow, zap and splat.

The issue now is what will linger. Fuel prices are moderating. Inventories will recover.

But the debt-ceiling compromise will be a long-term drag. On employment. On interest rates. On lending policies. And on America's self confidence.

You can't listen to a debate about whether Uncle Sam would be better off not honoring his debts and come out feeling more determined than ever to sign up for that new-car loan.

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