Scott Sturgis’ Driver’s Seat: Banner year for car sales, auto show – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2016

Now that the lights have turned off on one more Pittsburgh International Auto Show, it’s worth a step back to see how the show went and how the auto industry is doing this year — what’s hot and how are sales.

John Putzier, chairman of the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association, said that while final numbers aren’t in, preliminary indications are that the show was a hit — certainly evidenced by people queued up in zero degree weather waiting to get inside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Saturday.

A banner year: Auto sales nationally reached 17.5 million for calendar year 2015. This is the biggest sales year ever recorded.

It bested the previous record holder, the year 2000, when 17.35 million vehicles were sold, according to the all-things-automotive site

Looking ahead: But just where is the automobile sales train, er, truck headed?

Jeremy Acevedo, an analyst with Edmunds, is not shy about predicting more blockbuster sales. “In 2016, it should look a lot like 2015 — except amplified,” Mr. Acevedo said.

He confidently asserted the industry would sell 18.1 million vehicles in the 2016 calendar year — “the first time we’ve ever hit the 18 million threshold and a new all-time best.”

Mr. Putzier agreed. “All indications are that it should be, if not a record year, at least as good as 2015 was,” he said.

Using the past to predict the future: But can it be automatically assumed that a strong 2015 means a stronger 2016? Wasn’t 2001 — with 9/11, anthrax in the mail and the beginning of a pretty severe recession — a bust year for car sales?

Not at all, Mr. Acevedo said. Sales only slipped to 230,000 to 17.12 million.

The hot tickets: Light trucks returned to the top of the heap, after years in which expensive gas made fuel efficiency a focus.

Mr. Acevedo said the return of the housing industry has also aided this category, noting that in December for the first time, 60 percent of all vehicles were pickups, SUVs and vans.

“That’s a huge number,” Mr. Acevedo said. “That appetite just seems to keep growing, especially with fuel prices staying low.”

Another driving force: For several years, the phrase “pent-up demand” was the buzzword. The average age of cars in the U.S. was climbing ever higher, and people just needed to replace those old clunkers.

Not anymore. This year, the story is upscaling. People aren’t shopping out of necessity anymore; they’re hoping to buy something that they want.

Mr. Putzier cited low gasoline prices as helping drive car sales, and sales of more optioned-up cars. “People have more money in their pockets and they’re buying up,” he said.

And more one thing they want is the latest technology.

Mr. Putzier said accident avoidance, blind spot detection, 180-degree cameras — these safety devices are what consumers are eyeing. “The biggest features are on trying to reduce distracted driving — keeping your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road,” he said.

At the show: Upscale models don’t necessarily have to be on people’s shopping lists to be hot at the show.

Mr. Putzier said the show’s Galleria Exotica — 14 super-expensive cars from the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini — were as much of a draw as the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association expected. The show organizers even moved the cars so people could view them from all angles.

And as for the long lines outside on Saturday, Mr. Putzier said the organizers feel bad about people freezing in the cold and wish they could offer a better way to get into the center, but they’re thankful for the visitors’ patience.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve traffic control coming in to the center,” Mr. Putzier said.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at


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