Recent figures from industry analysts and regional manufacturing associations show that North America is seeing significant growth in demand for imported vehicles, boosting volumes for vehicle carriers serving the market.
Data from Autocorp and Reuters show that sales of imported cars were up 17.7% in March to 246,522 against the same month last year (209,498).
In the wider North American market consumers will buy 3.07m imported light vehicles in 2012 according to Bloomburg forecasts, 7.8% more than in 2011 and the biggest advance in six years. That demand will not come at the expense of domestic production, said the analyst, with growth in vehicle purchases reaching 8%, bringing total American sales to 13.5m units, its estimates show.
The forecasts are good news for ocean forwarders serving the market, including Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics.
"Based on numbers from IHS Global Insight (starting February 2012) we see the North American market up 5.3% to 16.1m in 2012," said WWL's head of Global Market Intelligence, Ari Marjamaa. "There will be a small increase in foreign assembly autos and South Korea will be among those with a 2.4% gain. After the impressive sales development in NAFTA in February and March there is reason to believe the strong market may lead to an even higher import of foreign produced vehicles."
By the second quarter of last year both vehicle and high and heavy freight at WWL's parent company Wilh Wilhelmsen had roughly reached pre-crisis levels according to research from consultants Drewry Maritime Research. WWL accounts for almost a quarter of the global car carrier fleet.
More widely, Drewry has forecast that the seabourne flow of vehicles from East to West "will increase dramatically", with trade from South America to North America also increasing substantially.
Thailand was the world's top vehicle exporter in 2010 according to Drewry, with more than 6.38m units exported, ahead of Japan with 5.33m. While most of Thailand's export destinations are in neighbouring countries, its ambition is to penetrate the wider developed markets, including North America.
However, Japan's seabourne trade routes are better established and, despite the problems caused by the earthquake that hit the country last year, Drewry forecasts that the sector will bounce back strongly between now and 2015 because demand is high for the quality associated with Japanese in countries with higher GDP per capita.
For its part the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) reports that exports in January 2012 hit 380,295 units up 4.1% on the same month in 2011. The total value of automotive exports for January 2012 was around $11.6m, including $8.8m for vehicles and $2.8m for parts.
Almost 150,000 vehicles were shipped to North America, an increase on 2011 of more than 125%. The US accounted for 129,587, itself up more than 124%. These were the highest recorded increases in export growth. Vehicle exports to Europe were up nearly 80% in January to 74,670 units.
Exports of vehicles from South Korea are expected to increase by just more than 11% in 2012 according to the Korea Automobile Manufacturers Association, which records total vehicle exports in 2011 of just more than 3.1m.