SAN FRANCISCO — One of the most brutal years in the history of the automotive industry has mercifully drawn to a close, and a relatively strong December of U.S. sales could very well set the stage for a recovery in 2010.
"The best thing that might be said about the year," for both the auto industry and an economically battered nation, is "it probably can't get any worse," said Bill Visnic, senior editor at car-buying research Web site Edmunds.com.
Bankruptcies for General Motors and Chrysler, thousands of job losses and dealership closures, the looming death of several high-profile brands and some costly potholes for Toyota Motor Corp. all combined to make 2009 a year to forget.
But the first sign that 2010 could be a year of healing will arrive on Tuesday when automakers hand in their monthly and year-end tallies.
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Analysts are expecting double-digit improvements for the group in comparison with both the prior month and a year ago, led by another set of strong numbers from Ford Motor Co. and the Asian manufacturers.
Ford has continued to benefit from a relatively fresh lineup along with the goodwill it earned from avoiding bankruptcy and declining a federal bailout.
Chrysler and General Motors, on the other hand, are seen as the only two decliners from a year ago, though a last-minute fire sale at Pontiac and Saturn could help boost GM's final sales numbers.
The Detroit giant is offering hefty incentives to sell thousands of leftover cars from the two discontinued brands. In some cases, the deals could result in savings nearing half off the sticker price.
Overall, Edmunds.com is targeting total sales for the year to come to just over 10 million cars and trucks, which would mark the industry's worst level in almost 30 years.
Ford is on track to show a 25.1 percent jump from December 2008 while Hyundai, cashing in on a consumer move toward smaller cars, will likely continue its winning ways with a 64 percent increase.
Toyota, Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motors are all expected to post double-digit gains, according to Edmunds.com.
Jesse Toprak, auto analyst for TrueCar.com, is hopeful that the industry is, indeed, on the mend, but he said the recovery will be slow and painful.
"When consumers are this unsure about the economy, the first purchases they postpone are homes
and cars," he said. "January and February could be tough, but more clarity on the economy will eventually help the mood."
Toprak said he expects total sales to jump to 11.4 million in 2010 and perhaps rise as high as 13 million in 2011. Earlier in the decade, the industry, on the back of surging interest in SUVs, topped sales of 17 million vehicles.
Analysts are mostly in agreement that the U.S. will enjoy at least some degree of improvement in 2010, but the prospects are even rosier worldwide, according to a report from Toronto-based Scotia Economics.
"Global car sales will continue to be buoyed by the ongoing massive and synchronized monetary and fiscal stimulus, which has generated a global economic recovery, including improving auto lending across the globe," analyst Carlos Gomes said.
He is looking for China to extend its lead over the U.S. as the world's biggest car market and help global sales in 2010 recapture half of the ground lost in the past two years, followed by record volumes in 2011.