One wild card in the forecast: the risk of another U.S. recession next year. Power puts the chances of that happening at about 1 in 3, which means manufacturers are staying flexible.
At General Motors, CEO Dan Akerson is preparing for "flattish" 2012 sales, even though GM chief economist Mustafa Mohaterem sees a stronger 2012. The point, says Mohaterem, is to prepare for the worst but be ready to handle better.
"So many things can go wrong around the world that you can't plan on fundamentals driving this thing," he says.
But even if there is a 2012 recession, auto sales and production won't decline below 2011 levels, says Jeff Schuster, Power's chief auto forecaster.
"Even in a double-dip recession, auto sales would be flat or slightly higher next year," he says. "There wouldn't be a huge change because of pent-up demand and need to replace worn-out vehicles."
North American auto output is still headed higher, though not as fast as previously expected, says Joe Langley, a Power production forecaster. After 2012, he sees 6 percent growth in 2013 to 14.8 million light vehicles.
"It's a positive but protracted growth trajectory," he says.
The production pace will pick up 9 percent in the fourth quarter, driven by catch-up output at Toyota and Honda after the March earthquake, says IHS forecaster Mike Jackson. He sees slower growth in the first quarter, but still a stronger overall 2012.
"The questions are about the economy and Europe and its sovereign debt," he says.
The auto industry must overcome other substantial headwinds to fully recover from the steep 2008-2009 downturn. The economic fundamentals that drive auto sales and production -- the unemployment rate, housing starts, financial markets and consumer confidence -- remain fragile.