Look out! Still water ahead

June was another good sales month. We’ve had a good first half, and a great six-year run-up.

But expect to start seeing some separation among competitors. As sales growth slows, margins thin a bit and rivals eye each other’s customers, we’ll find out which businesses are fundamentally stronger.

June U.S. light-vehicle sales rose 3.9 percent, and three forecasters have bumped their 2015 outlooks to more than 17 million. Let’s say we sell 17.1 million vehicles by year end and extend a winning steak unmatched since the 1920s.

Growth is still slowing.

After 2009, U.S. light-vehicle sales increased more than 1 million units for four straight years. And in 2014, they climbed 900,000.

This year, the pace is down to half a million.

As a teen, I loved canoe trips down Michigan’s Pine River. When the current carried us, we only paddled to avoid sandbars and snags. Everybody stayed together. But in still water, those with fundamentally sound J-strokes pulled away from the landlubbers.

In the car biz, we’ve still got a trickle of current with us. But up ahead -- whether it’s 2016 or maybe 2017 -- we can see that big, flat lake where we’re on our own.

So now’s a good time for some self-assessment.

Dealers can reflect on the state of their stores, depth of management and talent, and community involvement.

Automakers can consider manufacturing efficiency, and their product lineup, development and cadence. How many incentives must be piled on to move the iron?

And everybody can ponder debt. When times were good, was debt paid down or piled up?

Sure, the car biz is tougher than floating down a river. But it’s about effort. When the current carried us, did we practice paddling? Or kick back with a beer?

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com -- Follow Jesse on Twitter: https://twitter.com/spartyjesse

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