It's possible to argue that this isn't a great time to invest in the auto business. The pace of auto sales in the United States -- a key driver of profits at nearly all of the global automakers -- is probably near its cyclical peak.
Meanwhile, China's long-booming market (the other great driver of profits) is slowing, and price competition is increasing, meaning many companies' profit margins could be squeezed a bit over the next couple years.
But it's also possible to argue that there has never really been a bad time to buy a great business at a fair price, and there are several to consider in the auto industry. Here are two that look particularly strong right now.
This German powerhouse is making great use of advanced tech
German luxury-car giant BMW (OTC:BAMXF) has a lot going for it: strong profits and margins, rock-solid brands, and careful management.
That has all made BMW a favorite of investors for some time. But there's more to the story: With the global auto industry heading into a period of potentially wrenching transformations, BMW is in a better position than most to not only weather the changes, but thrive from them.
Like all of the global automakers, BMW faces stiff competition. Its two fiercest rivals are its fellow German luxury powers: Daimler's(OTC:DDAIF) Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen Group's (OTC:VWAGY) Audi.
BMW led both in global sales last year, but Mercedes and Audi have set the goal of overtaking BMW in the next few years. The race is on, in other words, but BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer is up to the challenge.
Last year, Reithofer announced BMW would step up its investments in advanced technology, particularly green technology, as a way to stay a step ahead of its rivals. BMW has historically aimed to spend 7% of its revenue on capital projects, but Reithofer said he expects capex to run significantly above that number until 2016.
BMW's i3 (an electric sedan) and i8 (a plug-in hybrid sports car) have both been great successes, and the company plans to build on those achievements -- not just in electric drive and other CO2-reduction measures, but in the advanced carbon-fiber composite materials it uses to build both.
There's much more coming along both lines. BMW has promised several more "i" models, including a midsized "i5" sedan that is expected to be a plug-in hybrid, but one with significant electric-only range. The company's growing mastery with carbon fiber will also soon spread to its mainstream models. The all-new 7 Series, set to be unveiled next week, is expected to weigh 300 pounds less than the current model, thanks to extensive use of carbon-fiber composites in its structure.
As all of this advanced technology grows in importance, BMW continues to post big profits on sales of its existing (very strong) product line -- particularly its sporty SUVs, which are in high demand all over the globe. Demand for luxury vehicles continues to outpace overall new-car demand in many parts of the world, and BMW's tremendous brand strength positions it to harvest solid gains for some time to come.
Investors love to hate this one, but it's time to take a closer look
It might be hard for many to even consider the idea that General Motors (NYSE:GM) could be a good investment. After all, for years -- decades -- GM was the poster child for auto-industry ineptitude. With shoddy products, poor quality ratings, and an unwillingness to deal with its huge legacy costs (among many other aspects of its decline), Old GM had it all, and not in a good way.
But even as GM slid into bankruptcy last decade, it was making progress, with improving products and processes. Bankruptcy allowed the General to unload many of its legacy costs and put its financial house in order. And since exiting bankruptcy in mid-2009, GM has slowly but surely been gaining momentum.
And now? Now, the General is on a roll. Under CEO Mary Barra and an executive team that shares her vision, GM isn't just looking to get by -- it wants to be "the most valued automaker in the world," as Barra frequently says.
Today's GM is solidly profitable and its products are near the top of the quality charts. But its profits lag those of key foreign rivals, and Barra wants more. Last fall, she announced a "strategic plan" to boost GM's profitability by early next decade.
What's in the plan? Major investments in new products and advanced technology, a radical global makeover for the Cadillac luxury brand, more growth and bigger profits from China, a global boost to GM's in-house financing arm, and a slew of operational changes that should move the automaker a long way toward taking best advantage of its still-massive global scale.
Old GM talked a lot about market share and aspiring to "world class" products. New GM talks about profit margins and returns on invested capital, and about beating its global rivals. It is backing up the talk with great products and sound financial moves.
It's a sea change. For investors, it's a great one. If Barra's plan works -- and this Fool thinks it will -- GM's margins, profits, and share price should rise significantly over the next several years.
Two more companies worth a closer look
I highlighted GM and BMW because I think they look particularly well positioned to generate sector-beating returns for investors over the next several years. But other automakers are also worth a close look from investors.
Ford (NYSE:F) continues to move from strength to strength, and its profits should increase nicely as its all-new F-150 pickup gathers strength and its operations abroad continue to improve. Ford's stock has treated investors very well over the last several years, and there's good reason to think more gains are coming.
Subaru's corporate parent, Fuji Heavy Industries (OTC:FUJHY), isn't well known in the U.S. But it boasts the highest return on equity of any major automaker -- an (accurate, in this case) indicator of strong management. Its stock is a little expensive right now, but it's worth a closer look.
As I said, this might not be the optimal time to load up on auto stocks. But if you're drawn to the sector because of the potential for transformation over the next several years, all of these companies are worth consideration.