Driver's Seat: Back to the future in growth?

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As the Philadelphia Auto Show cruises through the next week, about 250,000 people are expected to stroll among hundreds of offerings at the Convention Center.

Some of what you'll get to see includes the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, the 2017 Jaguar F-Pace, and the 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.

Amid vehicles basking in the bright lights and hoopla surrounding soccer star Carli Lloyd doing kicks at the show, perhaps there's room to reflect on the auto industry's past and look to its future.

Where we've been: Nationally, sales reached 17.5 million for calendar year 2015, the biggest sales year ever recorded.

It bested 2000, the previous record holder, when 17.35 million vehicles were sold, according to the all-things-automotive website Edmunds.com.

Looking ahead: But just where is the automobile sales train - er, truck - headed?

Jeremy Acevedo, an analyst with Edmunds, is not shy about predicting more blockbuster sales: "In 2016, it should look a lot like 2015, except amplified."

Acevedo confidently asserted that the industry would sell 18.1 million vehicles in the 2016 calendar year, "the first time we've ever hit the 18 million threshold and a new all-time best."

Using the past to predict the future: Can it be automatically assumed that a strong 2015 means a stronger 2016? Wasn't 2001 - with the 9/11 attacks, anthrax in the mail, and the beginning of a pretty severe recession - a bust year for car sales?

Not at all, Acevedo said. Sales slipped by only 230,000, to 17.12 million.

Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, which produces the auto show, used slightly more restrained numbers, saying the latest surveys expect that between 17.5 million and 18 million units will move this year.

The hot tickets: "It's an all-out pickup war." That was Mazzucola a year ago, when the redesigns of heavy haulers from Ford, GM, and Ram meant a year of strong competition.

That prediction came true. Light trucks returned to the top of the heap after years in which expensive gasoline made fuel efficiency a focus.

Mazzucola said the housing industry's rebound also aided this category.

Acevedo agreed, noting that in December, for the first time, 60 percent of all vehicles were pickups, SUVs, and vans.

"That's a huge number," Acevedo said. "That appetite just seems to keep growing, especially with fuel prices staying low."

Another driving force: For several years, "pent-up demand" was the buzzword. The average age of U.S. cars was climbing, and people needed to replace the old clunkers.

Not anymore.

Mazzucola said the market is transitioning from pent-up demand to desire. People are looking for something a little more than basic transportation that gets a driver from point A to point B. This is reflected in the high transaction price - averaging $33,000 in 2015, he said.

"These are decked-out vehicles," Mazzucola said.

Perhaps adding to the median transaction price, luxury vehicles are another arena in which Mazzucola sees growth, citing the new Volvo X90 and the Lincoln Continental as examples. Cadillac is expanding its lineup, and we'll be treated to the 2017 XT5, 2016 ELR and CT6.

Small crossovers: They, too, were the talk of the 2015 show. Automakers were hot to show the new Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, and Jeep Renegade, and those low-priced babies were expected to move.

Those predictions also came true. The category has grown 48 percent over 2014, Mazzucola said, and coming in 2017 we'll see the GMC Acadia and Buick Envision.

Said Acevedo: "They have really propelled the light-truck division. A few years ago, it was Hummers and Suburbans, and now it's HR-Vs and Encores and Chevy Trax selling well."

Constant change: The old cliché notes that the only constant in the world is change, and that adage is on steroids in the automobile industry.

Mazzucola notes that product lines that would have lasted five or six years with just a mid-model refresh now get plenty of new components every couple years, even when they look about the same.

So much has changed in the automotive industry. Just one more reason to see all the latest on display through Feb. 7 at the auto show.

ssturgis@phillynews.com 215-854-2558


Driver's Seat: If You Go

What: Philadelphia Auto Show

When: Sunday, Jan. 31, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; weekdays, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 7, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: Convention Center, 1101 Arch St.

Prices: Ages 13 and over, $14; 62 and over, $7 weekdays only; 7-12, $7; 6 and under, free; active military, $11.