The headlines from the past few days of automotive company earnings releases sure have been rosy. In the first half of 2013, it looks like Americans are buying cars at a rate not seen since before the recession, at an annualized rate of 15.7 million. The comeback was particularly strong in pickup trucks, which reflects a red-hot housing market; contractors have been busy. (Historically low auto loan rates may also have helped.)
But before we get too excited about the numbers, let's look at how the automotive sector has recovered. Here's the overall trend line for the past decade and change (not including 2013):
And here's how the Big Three automakers did between 2002 and 2012:
And here are sales of some super-luxury brands you might recognize (on different graphs because of higher and lower absolute sales numbers):
So while the more middle-class brands have eased back upward, the luxury car market bounced back with a vengeance more than a year ago. That probably has something to do with the fact that those with means weren't hurting too much through the recession, and so don't feel the need to be particularly conservative as the economy picks up.
But it may also reflect a structural trend identified by the Atlantic last August: Young people just aren't buying new cars as much, because their urban lifestyles don't require them. Young people also usually don't have much money, so they'd probably go for the smaller compact cars that Detroit is learning to produce, and they definitely aren't buying many Porsches or Maseratis. Long term, that's why the automotive economy may never return to the go-go days of the late 1990s. The bicycle market, on the other hand, could be looking up.