NEW YORK -- What was that number that snuck up on us last week amid the buzz of product launches here?
"Sixteen million," Mercedes-Benz USA boss Steve Cannon said in hushed tones last week at the New York auto show, speaking of 2013 prospects. "Sixteen million was like the mirage in the desert. It's no longer a mirage."
Here's the reality in what has been a desert of bleak news these last few years: The industry is healthy again -- perhaps a bit faster than some might have expected.
Credit is normalized. Leasing is on the way back. Capacity meets demand. And, funny enough, as gasoline prices continue to rise, consumers continue to buy cars.
And now that 16 million figure pops up again for the first time in what feels like forever.
"Everyone in this building is revising their forecasts," Cannon said.
So are the bad times really over for good?
Consider these red flags:
-- Greece might not be in the news anymore, but there's no question that fires are burning overseas. A slowing economy and mounting debt could trigger a financial meltdown again. Last week Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne criticized German automakers for rejecting European Union intervention that would have helped the region's automakers reduce excess production capacity. Europe's mess isn't over.
-- Passenger-vehicle sales in China dropped 4 percent to start the year, and the market is softening. As western economies slowed, China has been the source of growth. A sinking market could lead to lowered expectations.
-- The jobs picture isn't exactly solved here. Job gains slowed in March, raising questions about the true health of the economy.
And just so we all don't get too comfortable, there was this moment following the NADA/IHS conference last Tuesday:
"Did you hear the latest from the financial markets?" an analyst asked me as I stepped into an elevator.
"Wall Street says we'll be in a recession in 18 months."
Enjoy these good times. Now.