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More sales, more luxury in 2012 car sales

As 2011 comes to an end with the pace of auto sales accelerating, it make sense to expect the trend will continue next year.

Additionally, it seems likely that that new products, led by the BMW 3 Series and 2013 versions of the Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu, will lure buyers in their segments, and also that 2012's biggest auto industry stories could include fulfillment of Volkswagen's promise to grow its U.S. market share.

" Volkswagen is one of the largest [automakers] in the world, yet what they sell in the U.S. is peanuts," says TrueCar.com market analyst Jesse Toprak. Volkswagen's U.S. focus was underscored by the opening of a Chattanooga, Tenn., plant in May.

Automakers aren't quite ready to issue 2012 sales forecast, but Toprak expects 2012 light vehicle sales of 13.8 million units, up from about 12.8 million in 2011. "The fundamental consumer demand has improved this year and will continue to improve further in 2012," Toprak says. "The myth of pent-up demand has turned out to be at least partially true: Consumers at some point need to get a new car."

Widespread projections of continued economic growth, albeit slow growth, combined with a surge in sales in the current quarter, buttress expectations for continued growth in 2012 sales.

Among new products, the most important 2012 introduction could well the BMW 3-Series, debuting next month at the Detroit Auto Show, with a market launch in February. "The 3-Series has generated a lot of buzz," says Ed Loh, editor-in-chief of Motor Trend. "This is the bread and butter luxury segment, and I think it will see growth in 2012."

Loh says GM will seek to challenge BMW's segment dominance with the 2013 Cadillac ATS, which is slated to make its world premier at the Detroit show. Production will begin next summer in Lansing, Mich.

"ATS is a crucial part of Cadillac's expansion," Mary Barra, GM senior vice president of global product development, recently told the Automotive Press Association. "ATS enters the biggest market segment in the global luxury car industry, both in terms of volume and importance."

The segment is dominated by German cars including the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4, Barra acknowledged, but: "We've developed a compelling and convincing new challenger."

2013 Lexus GS 350

Sales of
Toyota's luxury Lexus GS are also slated to begin early in 2012. "The Lexus GS is coming at a time that is very critical to Lexus, which has been accused of losing its way and making boring cars aiming at the suburbs," Loh says. Toyota President Akio Toyoda "has said 'We need to make more exciting cars,'" Loh notes.

In the midsized category, sales of the 2013 Malibu will begin in the first quarter, while Ford will unveil its 2013 Fusion in Detroit. "The new Fusion will be big news," Loh says. "There's a lot of competition in the midsized market. Ford will take on Camry and Accord and also there is worry about the Sonata." The new Fusion will likely come to market late in 2012, he says.

GM has intros in several sectors. The new Silverado is expected later this year, while the subcompact Sonic was introduced during the current quarter. " GM has its hopes riding on the Sonic," Toprak says. "The car is not a cash machine at the price point, but it will bring in people who would not give Chevy a chance before."

Those new buyers reflect not only improvement in GM's small cars, but also the problems facing Toyota, which suffered from quality issues in 2010 and from production shortages this year following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March.

"Toyota will slowly come back in 2012," Toprak says. "But the fear for Toyota is that the competition is so much better now. Five years ago, they would have emerged and claimed back all of the share they lost, because what could you have bought instead besides Honda?

"Now, you might check out Ford, GM and Hyundai," he says. "Now, you are receptive to all of them."