That so-called “trapped demand” for new vehicles is expected to start being released in the next 12 months “and the whole industry is watching this,” says Gary Dilts, senior vice president-global automotive for J.D. Power and Associates.

Auto sales were off dramatically in 2008 and much of the same is expected this year because of the economy. That's expected to change in 2010 as consumers' postponed vehicle purchases start to materialize.

“Who are these people and what brands will they go to?” says Dilts. “Those are the big questions.”

Meanwhile, with industry sales in the doldrums, even consumer incentives haven't helped much.

“It's the first time we've seen incentives up and sales down,” says Dilts. “It means you've lost control of the customer. It doesn't mean you give up on incentives completely, but don't invest in a losing proposition. You need to be strategic.” n