American automakers had a lot to celebrate in 2015. Last year, they sold more new cars and light trucks than ever before. Some analysts suggest they could be in store for yet another record year.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves though, let's take a look at what's expected to be important this year. According to the Detroit Free Press, these are the five biggest auto trends for 2016:
Used car inventory to leap
More than 3 million vehicles currently under lease to their owners will be turned in to dealers this year, sending the inventory of used cars skyrocketing to the highest point since 2004.
If they're in solid condition, these vehicles – many of them offered through certified pre-owned programs – will become increasingly appealing to drivers who initially thought to look for a new car. Meanwhile, the sheer number of used cars on the market will help to drive prices lower across the board. That's certainly good news for drivers.
"Close to 80 percent of millennials are willing to buy a used vehicle in 2016."
Brian Moody, executive director of Auto Trader, told the Free Press that 2016 will see millennials warming to the idea of owning a used car. Close to 80 percent of millennials are willing to buy a used or certified pre-owned vehicle, Moody said. Coupled with online car insurance, millennials could very well be hitting the road in record numbers this year.
Tech partnerships will thrive
For decades, automakers and technology companies have remained somewhat separated. That began to change last year, and will only continue to do so in 2016 as the two industries increasingly regard each other as mutually beneficial partners.
In early January, for instance, GM announced that it would invest $500 million in Lyft to ensure that the company's rapid growth continued uninterrupted. The companies have also begun to develop plans for an on-demand network of self-driving cars.
"We see the future of personal mobility as connected, seamless and autonomous," said GM President Dan Ammann in a statement.
Ford, Toyota, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles have also made recent commitments to increased tech partnership. All three companies will begin to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in their vehicles as options for passenger infotainment, the Free Press reported.
Incentives will increase
A new car sale in 2015 came with, on average, a nearly $3,000 incentive, the Free Press described. That's the highest incentives have been in more than a decade.
There are a number of factors contributing to the jump in incentives, with the tempered growth of industry sales just one of them. Economists agree that, while the U.S. economy will continue to improve in 2016, it will do so at a more sluggish pace than was seen last year. In other words, while auto sales will strengthen, they won't do so by much.
Some analysts predict that drivers will buy between 17.5 and 18 million new cars and light trucks this year. Even at the high end of the projection, that's still just a 3 percent improvement on 2015.
This would suggest that dealers will only continue to offer higher incentives to get their cars off the lot and into drivers' hands.
Volkswagen remains on unsteady ground
Months after Volkswagen became embroiled in an international diesel emissions controversy, the German auto maker has yet to slip out from under the shadow of scrutiny surrounding it. Not only does the company face an issue with consumer trust, but in January, the Justice Department alleged that Volkswagen violated laws in the Clean Air Act.
Volkswagen has apologized and made efforts at regaining trust – including premiering an electric minivan concept, the "Budd-E," to a lackluster reaction at the Consumer Electronics Show, the New York Daily News reported – but its sales have continued to slip. While industry sales rose 9 percent in December, Volkswagen's fell 3.4 percent, according to the Free Press.
In 2016, the company will have to keep doing everything it can to reclaim the trust of American drivers.
SUVs and crossovers keep their appeal
As long as gas prices stay low, Americans' love for SUVs and pickup trucks isn't going anywhere. Even if gas prices were to spike, American automakers are much more able to deal with it today than they have been in the past, considering how fuel-efficient even the biggest modern vehicles are.
"Consumers want the most fuel-efficient version of the vehicle that they already want to buy. Not the most fuel-efficient vehicle," Rebecca Lindland, senior director of commercial insights for Kelley Blue Book, told the Free Press.
Detroit's news source reported that SUVs and compact crossovers accounted for 14 percent of new car sales last year, beating out even the ever-popular mid-sized sedans.