The year 2008 will be remembered by the global auto industry primarily for the financial meltdown that began in the U.S. housing market and quickly spread, threatening economies throughout the world.

Signs of a sales slowdown already were in play months before as new-vehicle deliveries in the U.S. and Europe continued to tumble, caused by a meteoric rise in the price of oil and raw materials.

Still, it was as if someone pushed a button and suddenly in October the world's markets came crashing down: banks defaulted, credit was crunched and currency values fell; leaving the world to wonder if a global recession was on the way.

In the U.S., Detroit auto makers frantic for cash began talking among themselves to determine if a merger or acquisition would offer a lifeline. In Europe, auto makers cut production and accelerated worker layoffs. In Japan, a strong yen and falling vehicle exports to Western markets brought fears of skidding profits.

Today, as the international players shift into overdrive to survive the chaos, growth in emerging markets, which up to now has served as ballast for Western auto makers, has begun to moderate.

The strongest of these – Brazil, Russia, India and China, coined “the BRICs” – are battered but holding firm, cemented by the lucrative potential of their still growing economies.

Considered the most promising of new markets – although the moniker belies years of patient building – the BRIC nations continue to realize their destiny as leading players on the world's stage, accounting for 15% of the global industry's vehicle output.

Brazil, enriched by its recent discovery of oil and bolstered by a healthy ethanol market, is a volatile firecracker, with soaring vehicle production and sales, confident government crash-and-burn policies are a thing of the past.

Russia, considered to be the world's fastest-growing car market, is an oil-producing giant transitioning from Soviet totalitarianism to Western-style capitalism, albeit under the heavy hand of former communist rule.

India steadily is working to become the global industry's small-car export hub, yet worried violent protests by farmers over government land grabs for new factories may have a broader effect – deterring foreign investors and denting economic growth.

China, with the largest auto market, continues to feed its ravenous appetite for raw materials, while spitting out double-digit vehicle sales that nevertheless were beginning to slow even before the global meltdown began.

Together, the BRICs are expected to account for half of all global growth in second-half 2008 and first-half 2009, according to a September report by Goldman Sachs. Between 2010 and 2015, real gross domestic product growth is expected to average 2.7% for Brazil, 5.9% in Russia, 5.3% for India and 8.0% in China.

Nariman Behraves, chief economist for forecaster Global Insight, said in September that emerging markets' GDPs were growing two to three times that of North America, Europe and Japan.

“Inflation is a bit of a problem, but we expect that to come down,” he says. “Six months ago, we were worried about a boom-bust in markets such as China – we're less worried about that now.”

A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts China will account for 14% of global vehicle production by 2015, India and Brazil 5% each and Russia 4%.

These studies were conducted before October's surprise, although storm clouds were gathering. As the BRICs now grapple with the effects of the worldwide financial crisis, will their anticipated growth continue to prop-up the global industry, or will they hit the wall?

“You have to have visionary leaders to look ahead,” Jay Ganatra, CEO of International Business Consultants and a former General Motors Corp. executive, recently told a GlobalAutoIndustry.com conference.

He recalls former GM Chairman Jack Smith outlining in 1995 the markets where the auto maker needed to be: India, Russia and China (it already was in Brazil).

“He set those as his strategic investments,” Ganatra says of Smith, even though at the time India was closed to foreign enterprise and Russia and China were communist countries. “The (lack of) government regulations, GDP, infrastructure and other macro reasons – everyone was saying, 'It's not going to fly.'”

bmcclellan@wardsauto.com