Automotive market research and data firm Polk is forecasting that the global light vehicle market will expand 6.7% to 77.7m vehicles in 2012.

The upbeat forecast from Polk is driven by yet higher sales in China and a belief among its analysts that the global economy will weather the current European sovereign debt crisis. Consumers will return to showrooms around the world in 2012, the firm maintains.

China is expected to make the largest contribution to global sales growth for new vehicles, according to Polk, with an anticipated 16% increase over 2011.  Polk analysts anticipate that much of this growth will occur outside of the large metropolitan cities of Shanghai and Beijing.

The US vehicle market, Polk says, will experience single digit growth, primarily due to the relatively strong year for sales in 2011, and the effects of the weak economy that will continue to impact new vehicle demand through most of 2012.  Light vehicle sales are expected to grow at a moderate pace, with a 7.3% increase to 13.7m vehicles, according to Polk analysts, but they do not expect the US market to achieve pre-recession levels of greater than 16m vehicles per year until 2015.

The luxury segment in the U.S. market in 2012 is expected to be the fastest growing segment, with more than 14% growth, according to Polk.

"More affluent buyers are returning to the market for new vehicles, after three years of spending reductions," said Anthony Pratt, director of forecasting for the Americas at Polk.  "The luxury segment also offers a wide variety of product options for consumers across all segments, ranging from small cars to SUVs," he said.

Polk says that leasing penetration will continue to be higher in the luxury segment in the US and will continue to lift transactions in all segments, as elevated residual values reduce the monthly lease payments, attracting consumers to showrooms who often make purchase decisions on the monthly payments that fit their budget.

Leasing penetration has increased to pre-crisis levels for 2011 (through October) of 41.5% for the luxury segment and 17.1% for the overall U.S. industry. Polk believe this trend will continue through 2012 as automakers attempt to win back consumers with promotions touting attractive monthly payments.

European sales are expected to be flat or down slightly, to just over 19m units, according to Polk.  Austerity plans will prevent governments in Europe from boosting 2012 sales through scrappage programs and other incentives offered in previous years.

Polk maintains that growth in the other BRIC countries will outpace many mature markets over the next few years.  As an example, Polk expects Brazil to surpass Germany as 2011 sales results are finalised, and new vehicle sales in India are expected to surpass those sold in Germany in 2014.  While Polk forecasts that sales growth in Russia will be flat in 2012, it anticipates that sales in Russia will outpace Germany by the year 2015.

Toyota and Honda to gain share in 2012

Polk predicts Toyota and Honda, respectively, will realise the greatest amount of market share growth in 2012 as they begin to win back some lost share from their 2011 inventory shortages following natural disasters in Japan and Thailand.  However, Polk also says that they will likely struggle to regain all of their lost share as they will experience strong competition from other automakers offering vehicles equipped with more fuel-efficient options and increased infotainment features.

Volkswagen will continue to win US market share in 2012, according to Polk, approaching the 3% range, as the Beetle launch will build on its successful Passat and Jetta models available in the market.

Although Hyundai and Kia sales volumes continue to increase year over year, Polk expects their market share growth to be flat in 2012, as the companies face increased competition in all segments.

Polk says that the Big 3 traditional US domestic manufacturers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, will continue to grow in 2012 as the industry continues to recover.  Refreshed products and new product introductions will help them to compete in various segments.