With 2012 U.S. auto sales in the books, we're three days into a 2013 that doesn't look too bad. Virtually everybody is assuming continued sales growth, though a bit slower.
Savor that thought just a moment. We've had three straight years of double-digit gains. And over the long feast-or-famine history of this industry, that's rare.
Any growth we get this year ought to be duly appreciated.
But more importantly, let's realize that dealers are no longer selling to a crowd with ravenous appetites. It's a pretty normal marketplace these days, not driven by extraordinary events.
Which is to say, little things are more important. What will move the market this year? I see three things potential buyers might love, and three they'll probably hate.
What they'll love:
No. 3: Low-cost financing is widely available again. And it's likely to stay that way all year.
No. 2: There's a bunch of spiffy new products, especially fuel-efficient models. That includes nearly all mid-sized cars and the redesigned 2013 Ram and 2014 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra are about to shake up the big pickup segment.
No. 1: Swapping out their clunkers. Yep, our rides average 11 years on the road. Once a buyer finally decides to get a new one, new-car fever gets irresistible quickly.
And what they'll hate:
No. 3: The jobless recovery. That stubbornly high unemployment rate, still near 8 percent after all this time, makes buyers pause.
No. 2: Less cash to spend. No, not the high income-tax rates on those making more than $450,000, but the end of the two-year, 2 percent Social Security tax holiday. With FICA tax rates back to normal, a prospect earning $60,000 has $100 a month less take-home to plunk down on a new car.
No. 1: The never-ending drama that is our political system. Now, auto buyers have gotten pretty good at ignoring Congress lately. But averting the fiscal cliff Jan. 1 only to have Congress schedule two new fist fights in the next 60 days on budget cuts and the debt ceiling? That's downright wearing.