For U.S. automakers, 2015 is going to be a tough year to beat. The industry saw 17.47 million sales last year, beating the 17.35 million sales recorded in 2000. In fact, it was such a big year for the car industry that President Barack Obama highlighted the American auto industry’s success in his final State of the Union address.
Higher sales were driven in part by the improving economy and lower gas prices, which allowed consumers greater financial confidence to buy new vehicles. Jim Morrison, director of product marketing for Jeep, says financial stability helped consumers decide to get new vehicles after putting the decision off in previous years.
“As Americans get their finances under control and are really starting to look forward they’ll want to do two things,’’ said Morrison. “One, [they’ll want to] replace the vehicle they’ve needed in order to keep their family safe and secure with their daily transportation. And two, to get the car they’ve always wanted,’’ he said.
But while 2015 was a great year for carmakers, the question remains: Can the momentum continue into 2016?
How long will low gas prices last?
Gas price analysis firm GasBuddy projected consumers stand to save billions at the pump in 2016 in its most recent Fuel Price Outlook. These lower gas prices helped boost car sales last year, notably among larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs, so on one hand, continuing low prices is good for automakers.
On the other hand, it comes with a potential problem. More affordable gas could undermine carmakers’ efforts to sell cleaner vehicles like hybrids, electric vehicles, or other alternative fuel technology.
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But Cynthia Arellano, a vehicle product training specialist for Toyota, says she is not worried by the uptick in larger vehicle sales.
“Some people want a larger vehicles regardless of what the gas price is,’’ she said.
Toyota has been a leader in the hybrid car movement. In 2016, the company revealed a redesigned version of its iconic Prius car and added a hybrid version of its RAV4 SUV to its lineup.
Arellano is confident that even in the face of cheap gas prices Toyota will continue to win over eco-conscious consumers because of its vehicles’ ability so save on gas and help the environment.
“What a hybrid does is minimize carbon emissions and get better fuel economy, which for consumers is about time,’’ said Arellano. “You get more mileage from a tank of gas and spend less time fueling at the pump. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to save money, and that’s what a hybrid does.’’
All in all, she believes this year will be just as good for Toyota as last year.
“Coming into 2016 after a strong 2015, we’re very confident,’’ said Arellano. “I think there are nothing but great things ahead for Toyota.’’
Consumers want more tech
Gas prices are just one factor at play in the 2016 outlook.
Kim Carpenter, east coast regional communications manager for Chevrolet, is optimistic for other reasons. For starters, she says one of the reasons customers are buying more new cars is because carmakers are producing high-quality products with lots of technology.
“The features they have now is years ahead of what was available just a few years ago,’’ said Carpenter.
For example, several vehicles in Chevy’s lineup offer 4G LTE technology that allow them to act as Wi-Fi hotspots.
“I think people are hungry for technology and connectivity and that’s a huge selling point.’’
Changes to mobility
Carpenter also points out that consumers are changing how they use their vehicles. Ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, for example, have reduced some consumers’ need to own a vehicle at all.
But Chevrolet’s parent company General Motors is making inroads in the ride-sharing market. Earlier this month, GM announced it is investing $500 million in a partnership with Lyft that would give passengers access to GM vehicles and Lyft access to GM’s research.
Meanwhile, Ford says it plans to be a leader in mobility through a program that focuses on connectivity, media, autonomous vehicles, customer experience, and data analytics.
“We see a huge opportunity in growing our business in the emerging mobility market through what we call Ford Smart Mobility,’’ said Ford spokesperson Vanessa Cook in a statement.
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