DETROIT – It will be more of the same in 2006, say economists for the U.S. Big Three auto makers – and that includes the market for fullsize SUVs, predicts one.

Speaking here to the Society of Automotive Analysts, Van Jolissaint, corporate economist for DaimlerChrysler Corp., says the market for traditional SUVs, in particular, and trucks, in general, not only will hold their own, they will grow as a percentage of total sales in 2006.

Jolissaint's projection is based on a consensus oil price forecast of about $55 per barrel in 2006. If it hits that mark, he says, SUVs should account for 23.4% of the total vehicle market, up from 22.7% in 2005.

Overall truck sales, including mediums and heavies, should increase to 57.6% of the market, from 56.5% last year, he says.

Chrysler says big SUVs to remain strong.

If oil prices are much higher than expected, it could drive the truck share down to 56.4%. If they are lower than expected, truck penetration could rise to 57.9%, Jolissaint says.

Small-car sales also will increase, from a 13.1% share to 13.4%, he says. But that gain will come from a drop in standard-car sales penetration, which Jolissaint has declining to 18.0% this year from 19.2% in 2005.

Overall, the passenger-car share should drop to 42.4% in 2006, from 43.5% last year, he says.

Jolissaint's forecast puts DCC more in line with General Motors Corp. than Ford Motor Co. when it comes to the future of big SUVs.

Both GM and DC are rolling out new fullsize SUVs at the North American International Auto Show here, and GM has been actively trying to counter notions the segment is under pressure from rising gas prices.

Ford has been vocal about moving its emphasis away from SUVs and toward cross/utility vehicles in a reaction to what it says is a general shift in the market to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Jolissaint predicts CUV sales will continue to grow, to 4.4% of the market this year from 3.9% in 2005.

And he acknowledges that fuel costs are a rising concern for buyers, going from 22nd on consumers' list of factors to consider when purchasing a new vehicle in 2001 to ninth in 2005.

But he says overall consumer spending on energy – gasoline for their vehicles and home heating and electricity – is not close to levels set in the early 1980s, when American buyers moved in big numbers to small cars.

“Consumers have reacted to fuel prices, so it is a more important factor,” he says. “But (prices are) not a reason to dispose of the vehicle they have and get something different.”

All three of the economists, including Mustafa Mohatarem of GM and Ellen Hughes-Cromwick of Ford, say 2006 will be on a par with 2005 when it comes to vehicle sales in the U.S., with only a slight softening of the market expected.

GM puts total vehicle sales at 17.2 million, down from an estimated 17.4 million-17.5 million last year, with DCC projecting 17.3 million for 2006. Ford forecasts light-vehicle sales at 16.7 million this year, vs. 16.9 last year.

None of the three is overly worried about a drop in housing prices affecting vehicle sales, with Hughes-Cromwick contending the historic relationship between the two sectors may be over.

“We view that decoupling as positive,” she says. “It means we won't have the same kind of backlash as the housing market will see when we see gradual increases in interest rates.”

Other positive factors include the U.S. vehicle scrappage rate, which she says still indicates a high rate of replacement buying should take place.

Overcapacity will continue to put pressure on pricing, the economists say.

Jolissaint says capacity in North America has risen from 18.7 million units in 2000 to 19.0 million vehicles last year, while capacity utilization has declined sharply from 92% to 83% in that time.

“So I think price competition will continue to be intense and vehicles will continue to be very affordable,” he says.

In addition to the uncertainty over future oil prices, red flags include potential policy mistakes in Washington when it comes to the size of the budget deficit, industry regulation and interest-rate policy, Hughes-Cromwick says.

Globally, Mohatarem is forecasting sales to rise to 65.6 million units, up from 64.7 million.

He expects an increase of 200,000 vehicles to 5.2 million in Latin America and a 1 million-unit rise in the Asia/Pacific to 19.2 million. North America should fall by 200,000 vehicles to 20.3 million and Europe drop about 100,000 to 20.9 million, he says.

China will remain a hot spot, Mohatarem adds, with growth there more than offsetting the decline in the U.S.

dzoia@primediabusiness.com