As automakers, parts suppliers and car retailers ready business plans for next year and beyond, the experience of the industry's 2009 crash has made caution the new byword.
For perspective, consider that AutoNation Chief Executive Mike Jackson now counts as an optimist in an auto industry still reeling from a collapse few saw coming.
His bullish forecast?
The U.S. auto industry's depression will continue in 2010 but with sales showing a modest gain to more than 11 million vehicles -- still below levels of 26 years ago.
We're looking at five to six years of growth, Jackson told Reuters. We can probably get back to a good old recession in 2011.
Jackson sees opportunity amid the turmoil for AutoNation, the top U.S. auto retailer by sales.
In his view, the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler and restructuring across the industry have set the stage for a grudging but certain recovery without the destabilizing boom and bust cycle of the recent past.
Fast growth in China and government stimulus measures in Europe and the United States have started to pull the industry out of its deep slump. That has left analysts, investors and industry executives to handicap the strength of a still- uncertain recovery.
Among the key issues: How long will the road back to normal be in developed markets? How will the competitive landscape shake out? And what will be the role for the raft of ambitious start-ups raising funding -- and expectations -- for an electric car revolution?
Those are some of the questions that Reuters reporters will put to top auto industry executives and analysts and labor leaders at the Reuters Autos Summit beginning on Monday.
AT A CROSSROADS
The event comes at crucial time for government policy and for General Motors Co and Chrysler as the Detroit automakers set out to demonstrate that their fast-track restructuring in bankruptcies have set them up for success.
GM's board is set to meet next week in Detroit to make a final call on the fate of its European unit Opel.
The question before the automaker's 13-member board is whether to proceed with a deal to sell Opel to a group led by Canada's Magna International or whether to try to raise financing to keep the unit.
GM emerged from a bankruptcy in July with $50 billion in U.S. taxpayer funding and a new board vetted by the U.S. Treasury that has pushed management to reverse the long-running slide in sales in its home market.
Meanwhile, Fiat SpA Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne is scheduled to deliver the five-year plan for Chrysler's turnaround at the automaker's Detroit area headquarters on Wednesday.
The Italian carmaker has been developing a plan to restart Chrysler's stalled product development since taking management control of the U.S. automaker in June.
Analysts say the hurdle remains high for Fiat, which is taking over a company that many say was starved for investment under its previous two owners, private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management and Daimler AG.
They need to get back on their feet and into the business of selling cars, said David Whiston, an analyst at Morningstar. They just don't have any exciting cars at the moment.
In a reminder of the continued pressure on the industry, U.S. auto sales for October due Tuesday are expected to show a slight rebound from September but at sales levels still just over 10 million units.
That would mark the highest sales rate of the year apart from July and August when the U.S. government's cash for clunkers program drove a short-lived boom.
But it would still be down by more than half compared to the sales rates that held for a decade between 1998 and 2008.
Ford Motor Co chief sales analyst George Pipas said the October sales would be the first results not skewed by the taxpayer-backed sales incentives of the summer.
There could be some residual effect in the fourth quarter, but for the most part the fourth quarter is going to stand on its own, Pipas said on Friday. I don't think anybody should be making too many excuses.
In Europe, meanwhile, the end of the vehicle scrappage incentives that inspired the U.S. program are being watched carefully.
France has promised to phase its scheme out gradually, keeping it until 2011. In Germany, Europe's biggest market, automakers are braced for a double dip sales slump as the sales incentives run out.
(Reporting by Helen Massy-Beresford and Kevin Krolicki, edited by Martin Golan.)