This has been a year to make automotive forecasters weep. A year ago, prognosticators debated whether 2008 light-vehicle sales would be just above or just below 15 million units.
Edmunds.com called it at 14.9 million. Late last year, J.D. Power predicted that sales would top 15 million. By April, it had revised its forecast for the year to 14.9 million — and then just kept lowering it as the train wreck of a year plunged toward 13 million.
Some forecasters have tried to blot out the memory of their 2008 prediction. "I don't remember, but it was a lot higher than what we got," says Joseph Barker, senior manager of North American sales forecasting for CSM Worldwide.
"The year was so volatile. The seasonally adjusted annual rate dropped five million units between the first quarter and this one. That's unprecedented in postwar U.S. history."
Analyst Jesse Toprak of Edmunds.com says some forecasters stopped predicting individual months during the year. But there are some areas of consensus:
December's selling rate will be even worse than November's annual rate of 10.2 million units — perhaps even lower than an annual rate of 10 million units.
The market will hit bottom soon, perhaps this month or in the first three months of next year.
After a lousy 2009 (less so in the second half), sales will recover fairly strongly to 13.5 million to 13.6 million units in 2010.
Within a few years, annual U.S. demand will return to levels of the early 2000s — between 15 million and 17 million units. Americans haven't sworn off autos, Barker says, "although it will take at least four or five years to return to 17 million units."