Spurred by heightened demand for light trucks in 2012, which are not going away in the U.S. market despite a consumer shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles, WardsAuto is increasing its North American light-vehicle production forecast for 2013 and 2014, particularly for pickups.

LV output ended 2012 at 15.38 million units, about 55,000 more vehicles than WardsAuto had forecast. Output by Chrysler, Ford and Honda rose above expectation and largely accounted for the additional units. The overbuilds more than offset below-forecast production by General Motors and Nissan in December.

At the same time, GM and Chrysler were able to cut some excess U.S. inventory through slightly stronger end-of-year sales and some strategic temporary shutdowns in December and January, which has helped strengthen their production outlooks for 2013. On the whole, nearly every North American auto maker is at a balanced level of inventory heading into 2013.

As a result, WardsAuto is increasing its LV production forecast by 65,000 units to 15.62 million for 2013 and by 157,000 units to 16.32 million in 2014. The increases for both years are prompted by upward revisions to large pickups, based on solid indicators that better-than-expected improvements in housing and construction are benefitting the U.S. economy.

Total light-truck output is forecast at 8.53 million units for 2013, or 55% of the market total, the same percentage as 2012. Share for 2014’s forecast drops to 54%, but volume will rise to 8.81 million.

The 2013 light-truck forecast sees a gain of 151,000 units, more than offsetting a cut to cars of more than 85,000 units. Nearly three-fourths of the increase will be in large pickups, with most of the remainder coming from the freshened Jeep Grand Cherokee.

WardsAuto’s revised forecast calls for production of large pickups to reach 2.13 million units in 2013, a 1.0% gain on 2012’s 2.11 million. Output will see 3.7% year-over-year growth to 2.21 million in 2014, when the economy picks up more steam and continued growth from construction and housing has had more time to filter through to the retail sector.

It’s important to note a good portion of 2012’s growth was in inventory buildup, mostly due to Japan’s 2011 tsunami and Thailand’s historic floods that constrained production, inventory and sales for several Asian-based auto makers. Therefore, 2013 yearly comparisons will not appear as strong on face value because the 2012 gains were artificially pumped up.

LV production increased in 2012 at all North American manufacturers except Mitsubishi, which was relatively flat with 2011. Most auto makers will see gains again in 2013, although some notable declines are expected at Chrysler, Subaru and Volkswagen due to a waning demand for aging products prior to overhauls coming in the 2014-2016 timeframe.

Strong increases in 2013 will be seen by Ford, which has boosted capacity to meet demand, and by Hyundai, whose Alabama plant is on its first full year of 3-shift output. Mitsubishi’s production will improve but only because it is coming off a severely low base. Mercedes will see growth following a boost in capacity.

Nissan, which opens a new plant in Mexico in the fourth quarter and adds first-time North American production of two vehicles during the year, also will enjoy a solid gain.

hstoddard@wardsauto.com