GM CEO: Auto Sales Will Keep Growing

U.S. auto sales are expected to top 15 million this year, General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) CEO Dan Akerson said in an interview on Thursday, and he expects those sales numbers to climb for at least four or five more years.

Akerson, in an appearance on CNBC on Thursday morning, attributed a recent slowing in retail auto sales growth to the payroll tax increase that hit in January and said that the U.S. economy's recovery hasn't been as strong as he'd like.

But for all that, he's optimistic about the prospects for U.S. auto sales for the next several years – and about GM's chances of getting a larger share of those sales.

"Pent-up demand" to drive sales for several more years
Akerson feels that U.S. consumers' demand for new cars and trucks will continue to be strong for several years as people continue to move to replace aging vehicles. The average age of individuals' vehicles in the U.S. is now at about 11 years old, an all-time high.

Akerson feels that, despite a less than robust U.S. economy and lingering high unemployment, demand for new vehicles will continue to be brisk until that average age falls back to the eight- or nine-year range.

It's a view I've heard from Ford (NYSE: F  ) CEO Alan Mulally as well, who has often referred to "pent-up demand" in the U.S. market resulting from the huge dip in car sales during the 2008-2009 economic crisis, and the slow recovery in sales since then.

As most auto executives see it, somewhere in there a lot of cars and trucks that might have been replaced during good times didn't get replaced. Eventually, the thinking goes, those purchases will need to be made.

Still a way to go before the good times return
Even if U.S. auto sales top 15 million in 2013, they still won't quite have returned to pre-recession levels, and that may mean they'll still have more room to grow.

U.S. auto sales nearly hit 17 million in 2005, before settling back to 16.5 million in 2006 and 16.14 million in 2007 – that last a result that worried pundits characterized at the time as the weakest in a decade.

But automakers have been hoping for that kind of "weakness" ever since. Sales went sharply downhill as the economic crisis took hold in 2008 and 2009, and have made a slow recovery since.

Under Akerson, GM has moved aggressively to overhaul its entire product line. Over the next couple of years, GM will go from having the oldest product line in the U.S. to the freshest, as a slew of new models begin arriving at dealers.

If Akerson's view of sales trends over the next few years is correct, GM's timing may turn out to be pretty good.

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