The auto industry's steady climb back to pre-recession sales levels is shifting into high gear.
Pent-up demand will push new-car sales to 16.4 million units in 2014, according to a forecast by Edmunds.com. That would be the highest annual sales number since consumers bought 16.5 million new cars in 2006.
"The average age of all light vehicles on the road climbed to 11.4 years in 2013, and an aging fleet will continue to force buyers back to the market next year," said Edmunds.com chief economist Lacey Plache. "With used-car prices still elevated over past norms and used-car supply still tight, the new-car market will remain attractive to many of these buyers."
Next year's automotive sales environment will be similar to this year's, according to Edmunds.com.
"Many of the same sales drivers from 2013 will remain in play and support car-sales momentum," the firm said in its 2014 forecast. "The release of pent-up demand from buyers who deferred sales during the recession will continue as the increasingly aged fleet drives more consumers back to the new-car market."
"A continued flood of lease returns to the market" will buoy new-vehicle sales as well.
Edmunds.com estimates that 500,000 more leases will expire in 2013 than in 2012, and the firm expects the number to grow by an additional 300,000 in 2014, accounting for about a third of all expected sales growth in 2014.
Still, the forecast isn't entirely sunny. Even if new-car sales grow at the 6 percent rate that Edmunds.com projects, it will be the slowest year-to-year growth since auto sales bottomed out in 2009.
The biggest drag on sales growth in 2014, according to Edmunds.com, likely will be "the need for stronger economic growth to allow many of the remaining sidelined buyers to return to the market."
"The economy has not yet improved enough for recovery to widely reach the groups hardest hit by the recession, including young people, lower-income households and small businesses," Plache said. "Even though auto sales from these groups have improved from recession lows, their participation in the recovery still lags the rest of the market."