15 million in '13? You bet
First time since 2007, but growth will slow
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained the incorrect figure for projected December unit sales. LMC forecasts U.S. sales of 1.4 million vehicles this month and 14.5 million for the year.
Growth in U.S. light-vehicle sales is projected to slow in 2013, though for the first time since 2007, most forecasts say dealers will sell more than 15 million new cars and trucks.
By late next year the monthly selling rate could even approach 16 million.
At the moment, automakers are trying to finish 2012 on a strong note, as General Motors and some others offer big year-end discounts to help clear out inventory. Dealers and analysts say December so far has been slightly weaker than they anticipated after a surprisingly robust November.
December sales are expected to increase 14 percent from a year ago to almost 1.4 million vehicles -- finishing the year with sales of 14.5 million units, according to LMC Automotive. LMC projects the industry to post its second-best selling rate of the year in December, just short of November's 15.6 million.
"November was busier than normal, but December slowed down a little bit more," said Danny Leach, a sales manager at Shore Toyota in Mays Landing, N.J., where customers have been replacing vehicles damaged by Hurricane Sandy. "Right after Christmas we'll see a big increase."
Going into 2013, the industry is facing some uncertainty related to the "fiscal cliff," the term given to an array of federal tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect at the end of December if Congress does not act. Together, those could slow economic growth and cause consumers to put off big purchases, but many experts say they are confident Congress will delay or prevent many of the changes.
"The only major roadblock ahead for the U.S. market is the fiscal cliff," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive.
"Assuming that hurdle is cleared, 2013 is one step closer to a stable and sustainable growth rate for autos, with volume above the 15 million unit mark."
Lacey Plache, chief economist for Edmunds.com, said she does not expect the industry to feel much of an effect from the fiscal cliff, even if the Obama administration and House Republicans don't make a deal before Dec. 31.
"Maybe we're in for a weak January -- January's usually pretty weak anyway -- and then we go from there," she said.
Plache and other analysts say 15 million is essentially the floor for auto sales in 2013, with considerable potential for the industry to exceed that if the economy strengthens.
"We've got a lot of momentum going," Plache said. "The fact that the stock market continues to be strong and the fact that housing prices are on the rise has really boosted people's self-confidence, and that's continuing to fuel car sales," Plache said.
Fifteen million sales would be only a 3 percent increase from the likely 2012 total of 14.5 million. That would be the first time since the depths of the recession in 2009 -- when sales were just 10.4 million -- that sales rose less than 10 percent in a year, reflecting the difficulty of sustaining such a pace without more robust economic and employment growth.
Much of the gains in 2013 are expected to come from mid-sized cars and subcompacts, while market share for compacts and crossovers remains steady or declines, said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
Many new mid-sized models now offer fuel economy comparable to compacts from a few years ago, making them attractive to shoppers who want to save money on gasoline without sacrificing as much space.
The year ahead also is expected to be good for pickups, with GM rolling out redesigned versions of its full-sized trucks and gasoline prices falling. The federal Energy Information Administration, in its Dec. 11 forecast, said it expects gasoline prices to average $3.43 a gallon in 2013, down from $3.63 this year.
Slowing auto sales growth could mean more intense competition, with Volkswagen, Mazda and Subaru among those making big pushes, Gutierrez said. Larger automakers, including GM, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., aren't likely to gain much share, he said.
"We see them just trying to maintain their position," Gutierrez said, "while some of the smaller players become more aggressive and try to capture some market share."
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