An economic stumble – resulting in a fall in consumer confidence – is their big worry this year, executives of the US arms of five import brand carmakers told the USA Today newspaper.

Despite better products, a new car “is an eminently postponable purchase if you don’t feel confident in the economy,” Nissan North America chief Jed Connelly reportedly said.

His views were echoed during a panel discussion by Richard Colliver, head of American Honda Motor; Donald Esmond, head of the Toyota brand in the USA; Robert Cosmai, Hyundai Motor America chief; and Victor Doolan, head of Volvo Cars of North America.

USA Today said vehicle sales this year to the end of April were up about 3% compared with a year ago –16.6 million were sold in 2003. The panelists’ predictions for 2004 ranged from about the same as last year to 16.9 million.

The Iraq war and the ever-present threat of terrorism are a drag on the economy, Cosmai told the paper, but “the overall driving force is: ‘Am I going to be working at the end of the month or at the end of this week?’ ”

Colliver told USA Today that there are 2.3 million fewer jobs than in 2001, a fact that keeps younger people out of the new car market. “The lack of jobs has driven the average age of our products up,” he reportedly said.

Esmond reportedly said the economy is a concern short term but is optimistic about the longer outlook. “We’ve got a lot of faith in the economy and the direction. We know the US market is going to grow, and we’re making a lot investment to grow with it.”