DETROIT -- The U.S. auto market is rebounding, but a new survey by AlixPartners argues that the auto industry might as well forget about "pent-up demand."
The report, released today, predicts U.S light vehicle sales of 14.3 million units this year, up from 12.8 million units in 2011.
However, the report predicts U.S. sales will stay below 16 million units through 2015 -- and that it's not just a lagging economy that will hold sales below previous highs.
There were 5 million fewer American motorists in 2010 than expected, given the nation's population growth, according to AlixPartners, a financial advisory firm based in suburban Detroit.
The report compared the percentage of American adults with licenses in 2010 to that of 2000.
John Hoffecker, a managing director of AlixPartners LLP, attributes much of this shortfall to aging Baby Boomers, who are less likely to drive than their peers were a decade ago.
"Boomers are driving less than other people their age were in 2001," Hoffecker told Automotive News. "A smaller percentage of people are driving. The number of miles driven also has flattened out and we don't see it going back up."
Moreover, younger Americans -- dubbed Millennials -- appear to be less enthusiastic about car ownership than their peers a decade ago. The AlixPartners report dubbed this contingent "Generation N," as in "neutral about driving."
Another trend: the shift to smaller vehicles will continue through 2016. Compact cars and small crossovers will be the fastest-growing product segments through 2016, while pickup sales will rise modestly.
Hoffecker attributes this shift to high gasoline prices plus an influx of well-designed, feature-laden small cars that refute the "econobox" stereotype.
In general, the survey compares the North American auto industry favorably to Europe's auto industry, which is sliding into another recession.
The report notes that automakers in North America shut down 18 plants since 2007, thus unloading unneeded capacity and clearing the way for a subsequent rebound. As a result, North American plants are running at 89 percent of capacity, according to AlixPartners.
By contrast, European automakers shut down only three assembly plants since 2010. Now, about 40 of 100 assembly plants in Europe are operating below 75 to 80 percent of capacity.
Likewise, North American automakers are not repeating some of the mistakes of the past, such as over-producing vehicles, then dumping them into daily rental fleets.
Fleet sales currently account for 20 percent of total U.S. light-vehicle sales, below the long-term average of 24 percent.
Concludes Hoffecker: "The industry is acting in a good, rational way to build production… and meet natural demand. Automakers in the U.S. are in much better shape than they were before 2008."