Top of auto sales cycle is approaching: Study

After a five-year run where auto sales climbed to near-record levels, a new study says the current run will continue through next year before finally pulling back.

AlixPartners' annual Global Automotive Outlook forecasts auto sales peaking in 2016 at 17.4 million vehicles, capping a seven-year run.

A customer ooks at a Ford vehicle on the showroom floor at a Ford AutoNation car dealership in North Miami, Florida.
Getty Images
A customer ooks at a Ford vehicle on the showroom floor at a Ford AutoNation car dealership in North Miami, Florida.

So far in 2015, U.S. auto sales are running at a pace of 17.2 million vehicles. If sales continue at this rate, 2015 will be the second-best year ever for auto sales, trailing only 2000 when the industry hit a high-water mark of 17.4 million vehicles.

"It's going to be challenging for automakers to push sales much higher," said Mark Wakefield with AlixPartners.

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The problem? The U.S. has become increasingly saturated with new vehicles following an extended up cycle where sales will have jumped 67 percent.

After hitting a high next year, auto sales are expected to pull back steadily in a three-year down cycle that will bottom out with annual sales of 14.9 million vehicles in 2019, according to the study.

"That would be a moderate downturn," Wakefield said. "One thing we are baking in is automakers not slashing prices and artificially boosting demand with excessive incentives."

What's fueling record auto sales?
What's fueling record auto sales?   

While the AlixPartners' forecast may cause some to worry, since automakers have historically struggled to stay profitable during recent down cycles, Wakefield is more optimistic. He believes automakers learned from the severe drop in sales during the recession of 2009 and 2010 and are now better positioned and more more disciplined to remain profitable when sales drop.

The study also calls for moderating sales in China, the world's largest auto market.

AlixPartners says auto sales in that country will grow 5.2 percent annually through 2018 then slow to 4.1 percent annual growth through 2022.

"China slowing down under 6 percent annually may surprise some people, but this has been expected for some time," said Wakefield.

With annual auto sales already topping 22 million vehicles, China's largest cities are facing congestion and pollution complaints that has the seven largest cities either enacting or considering restrictions on the registration of new vehicles.