So far, the U.S. market players are remarkable for holding discipline on matching production to sales.
That was a critical survival skill in the hard times. Automakers did a terrific job despite all of the volatility. The payoff: They, and most of their dealers, survived.
It has been a critical skill in the early recovery. Carmakers kept lots filled, but not oversupplied. Their payoff: Lower production and merchandizing costs, higher transaction prices and healthier dealers. Oh, yeah, they actually showed profits in the first quarter.
Now comes the real test of resolve. This is when it gets hard.
Can everybody resist a grab for market share? The longer everybody behaves, the longer everybody stays firmly in the black. But as soon as the first brand breaks the peace, everybody could be pulled into a marketing free-for-all.
There's a compelling case for restraint. Automakers don't want to lose those higher transaction prices or build up expensive-to-maintain inventories that then require big spiffs.
But there also are temptations.
Market conditions are volatile, with huge market share swings in the past year. All those former Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer buyers are loose, for one. All those buyers in towns where GM or Chrysler dumped dealers are in play. Local loyalty rules are out the window as well.
With this much volatility, there may never be another time when it's cheaper to buy some market share.
And there're two kickers:
Buyers have the hammer. They want a great deal, and they're willing to wait.
Auto marketers know the first to offer a big discount gets more bang for the buck than those who follow. Go first, you pay a price but gain share. Go last, you pay the same price but lose share, too.
We've all seen this movie: Bar full of gunslingers, all guns drawn, everyone trying to cover everybody in sight.
Who will fire the first shot?