NEW YORK -- U.S. auto sales could return to their boom-era levels of 17 million a year as soon as 2015 -- but only if unstable oil prices don't wreck the party.
That rosy forecast, presented to auto industry executives and retailers in New York today, is already a step back from a more hopeful prediction one month ago, says George Magliano, senior automotive economist for IHS Global Insight.
He anticipates that U.S. light-vehicle sales will hit 12.9 million units this year, and 14.7 million next year, a steep one-year gain in sales by most counts.
But oil prices are already taking a toll, Magliano told the audience at the NADA/IHS Automotive Forum.
Magliano said that 30 days ago, in response to rising gasoline prices and political instability across the Middle East and North Africa, IHS knocked 150,000 sales out of its 2011 industry forecast by factoring in a $10-a-barrel increase in the price of oil.
Continued trouble in the oil industry will reduce auto sales even more in the next few years, he warns.
If oil prices remain stable going forward, Magliano forecasts, U.S. light-vehicle sales will reach 16.5 million units in 2014 and 17 million in 2015.
His forecast anticipates a surge in small-car sales and largely flat sales for the crossover segment, which has grown rapidly over the past few years.
According to the new IHS forecast, should oil prices rise to $110 a barrel, U.S. light-vehicle sales will rise more slowly, hitting a peak of just 15.4 million in 2016.
IHS Chief Economist Nariman Behravesh predicted that oil-producing nations will strive to keep prices stable for the foreseeable future.
But the issue is uncertain, he said, adding, "oil is the biggest risk facing the economy."
U.S. light-vehicle sales hit a record 17.4 million in 2000. Last year, car and light-truck demand totaled 11.6 million units, up from 10.4 million in 2009.