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Auto Sales Barreling Ahead, But Trucks & SUVs Lag

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The U.S. economy is giving mixed signals these days. Stocks are up, as are home sales, but hiring -- though not on the decline -- is often described as anemic.

And yet, the U.S. auto market is charging full-steam ahead. In fact, J.D. Power predicts that the industry will see 12% growth this year, with 11.8 million vehicles sold at retail and another 2.7 million sold to fleet operators, for total sales of 14.5 million.

Power bases those predictions on current sales data, which shows that U.S. consumers are likely to purchase 952,200 new vehicles this month. That's 12% higher than September of last year, and maintains the 12% pace of growth we've seen earlier this year.

Winners, losers

Power says that most segments of the auto market are on track to see big gains in 2012. The biggest of the bunch will likely be sub-compacts, compacts, and midsize vehicles, which could see sales growth of 25% (or more) above 2011. 

The losers? Midsize utilities and large SUVs.

Our take

J.D. Power's predictions are in keeping with trends we've seen throughout 2012 in the new and used auto markets, most of which are a result of high gas prices. (Today's national average: $3.81.)

In short, current shoppers are looking for fuel-efficient rides. That's why the average fuel economy of new cars sold is on its way up again and why used vehicles -- especially gas-sippers like the Toyota Prius -- are retaining their values so well

The strength of the 2012 auto market is also a reflection of the challenges seen in 2011. Japanese automakers in particular struggled with natural disasters like the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck in March of last year, which was followed a few months later by torrential flooding, crippling production in Thailand. That caused new-vehicle shortages, which in turn caused prices to stay high, deterring some customers.

But 2012 doesn't just look good by comparison to 2011: it looks good no matter what metric you use. In fact, LMC Automotive (formerly J.D. Power Automotive Forecasting) predicts that this year's growth spurt will continue in 2013, with total sales of 15 million vehicles, 12.3 million of which will be sold to retail shoppers like us.

If you've got other thoughts about the growth of the auto sector -- or why that growth may/may not continue -- drop us a line, or leave a note in the comments below.

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