Maybe it's time to recalibrate. Most of this year was spent repeating the same monthly vigil, as we waited anxiously to see whether industry sales volumes would top the 1 million-unit mark and how far the seasonally adjusted annual rate would creep toward 12 million vehicles.
We sweated over whether the fleet market was carrying too big a sales load and wondered aloud just what — and how long — it would take to get overall demand back up to more reasonable levels.
But it may be time to transition to a new way of thinking, where the industry's health is judged much less by how many cars and trucks were sold in the previous month and much more on a set of metrics that better reflect the market realities of the post-2009 meltdown.
Getting back to 16 million-unit annual sales or more would be nice, but only if that's the true level of demand and the industry can avoid the pitfalls that made the overcapacity-fueled record sales years of 17 million-plus vehicles famous as the period of “profitless prosperity.”
That means making sure capacity, production, inventory and sales levels remain in a healthy balance that allows auto makers to dodge costly incentives that erode profits and tarnish brand equity.
More important barometers than sales volumes and market shares are days' supply of inventory, plant capacity utilization, average transaction and resale values, cash flow and, yes, profits and losses.
A ton of money stands to be made in even a modest 15 million-unit market. Detroit already is beginning to post some pretty healthy financials at much smaller volumes.
But auto makers and suppliers will need to maintain some discipline if they want it to remain that way.
In the meantime, maybe we should all stop waiting for that big market rebound as the one sure sign the industry is on its way to a full recovery. Things have changed, and monthly sales reports won't tell the whole story.