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Once struggling U.S. auto market now industry bedrock

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Welcome to an unlikely beacon of hope for the global auto industry -- Detroit.

Executives arriving this week for the Detroit auto show find a U.S. car market that has morphed from meltdown three years ago to a safe haven as concerns grow about the stability of other big economies, from Europe to China.

Analysts and executives expect 2012 U.S. auto sales to grow 4 percent to 9 percent, the third consecutive annual gain. The only reason automakers are not more bullish is the risk that the sovereign debt crisis in Europe may trigger a broader slowdown.

All three U.S. automakers took market share in the United States for the first time in 23 years. But they can expect tougher competition in 2012 as the Japanese rivals rebound, and Hyundai and Volkswagen gather steam. A return to the boom years of 17 million annual sales, however, will not happen any time soon.

"We see an exceptionally competitive market because there are now eight major manufacturers vying for share," said Tom Libby, senior forecasting analyst at Polk, a Michigan-based automotive consulting firm.

"VW has become very aggressive in the U.S., and Hyundai-Kia has huge momentum that will continue into 2012."

The crop of new vehicles at the Detroit show this week reflects the heavier competition U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford and Fiat-controlled Chrysler can expect in their home market.

Toyota -- which lost 2.3 percentage points of U.S. market share last year -- and Honda, still rebuilding inventory after Japan's tsunami last March, are previewing 2012 updates of their key Prius and Accord models. VW and Hyundai-Kia are also getting attention after posting the biggest U.S. sales gains of last year.

VW wants to double its U.S. market share, said Rainer Michel, product strategy and marketing chief for Volkswagen of America. "Our aim should be being visible on the street, so every five or six cars out of 100 on the road should eventually be a Volkswagen."

The VW brand had 2.5 percent of the U.S. market in 2011 and its luxury brand Audi accounted for nearly 1 percent.

South Korea's Hyundai and affiliate Kia together matched VW's 26 percent sales surge in a U.S. market that expanded 10 percent in 2011.

Polk sees that growth slowing to 7 percent for 13.7 million U.S. deliveries this year, with Europe flat or in decline.

Buckingham Research analyst Joseph Amaturo said he expects moderate growth in China, Brazil and India this year with the prospect of "very aggressive" discounting in those emerging markets.

"Europe is where we face the biggest uncertainties because of financial market volatility, and we're having to adapt our products to increase share," said Philippe Dehennin, head of German premium automaker BMW's French division.

"The U.S. market, along with China, offers significant growth potential with our existing models. It's an absolute priority."

BRIGHT SPOT AMID UNCERTAINTY

Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne's investment in Chrysler, seen in 2009 as a risky distraction even with no cash outlay, now looks like a saving grace as he grapples with collapsing demand in Fiat's core southern European markets.

"He entered Chrysler at rock bottom and will now capitalize on a U.S. recovery -- the timing was perfect," said Philippe Barrier, an automotive analyst with Societe Generale in Paris.

U.S. automakers are also counting on a domestic recovery to soften the impact of Europe's slump, already complicating the elusive turnaround plan at Opel, GM's regional unit.

"As I look around the world, my greatest confidence is about the U.S.," GM Chief Economist Mustafa Moharatem told an analyst conference in Detroit on Sunday.

"Europe is where I see the greatest uncertainty, because we don't know how the sovereign debt issue will be handled."

Moharatem also predicted "slower growth and more uncertainty" in major emerging markets.

While U.S. consumer demand is rising, some analysts warn the car market will not return to the 17 million annual sales averaged before the 2008 crisis.

"The growth rate looks good because we're coming off very depressed levels, but there's a question of the longer-term outlook," Citigroup U.S. auto analyst Itay Michaeli said.

For the first time in history, U.S. consumers are scrapping more vehicles than they buy. Younger households increasingly are forgoing a second car and middle-aged couples are less likely to have a third vehicle, according to a Citigroup study.

The shift threatens to keep annual sales in the 13 million to 14 million range "for the next few years," it adds.

"Over the decade preceding the last crisis, America took in many more vehicles per household, largely because of all the incentives and easy credit," Michaeli said. "Now the question is how many we want and need in this new world that we're in."

Michaeli forecasts 13.9 million U.S. sales in 2012 and said pricing is holding up well, so far. Some automakers nonetheless say conditions could weaken.

"The U.S. market is not necessarily in line for years of uninterrupted recovery," BMW's Dehennin said. "And there's a lot of competition on the starting line."

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