After a sickly 2009, Alabama's auto industry made a strong comeback last year, with output that surged more than 50 percent.
All three of the state's auto assembly factories ratcheted up their 2010 production significantly, putting workers on overtime as the global industry recovered from a deep downturn.
Combined, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai produced more than 711,000 vehicles at their Alabama factories last year, according to the automakers and estimates from the Automotive News Data Center.
That's up 52 percent from the 467,708 vehicles built in 2009 and the second-highest annual total in the state sector's young lifespan.
But as economic recovery continues to drag, it's not clear what lies ahead for the automakers in 2011.
Ongoing weakness in the labor and housing markets casts a shadow on a host of industries and companies, said Keivan Deravi, an economist at Auburn University at Montgomery.
"You see a resurgence of profitability and earnings, but the question is, 'Is it sustainable in the long run?'" he said.
For automakers in particular, last year was good thanks to pent-up demand and aggressive marketing, he added. But it's too early to expect a full bounce-back to spending levels seen before the world's financial meltdown in 2008.
"I'm not convinced that we will see 2007 levels of spending, simply because the fundamentals are not there," Deravi said.
What will happen, however, is increased competition, especially at the dealer level, as choosy car shoppers search for the most attractive financing options, he said.
Alabama's auto industry kicked off in the 1990s, when Mercedes selected the state as the site of its first U.S. manufacturing plant. Honda and Hyundai eventually followed, and in 2007, the state's annual auto production peaked at 739,019 vehicles.
But the following year, a global auto sales slump took hold, and the yearly output declined.
In 2009, production plummeted further, as all three auto plants drastically slashed production, shortened work weeks and cut temporary workers to keep pace with weak demand.
As demand in the market returned last year, the state's assembly lines picked up steam. New products, particularly the redesigned Hyundai Sonata sedan, registered strong sales and helped fuel the jumps in output.
Hyundai builds the Sonata at its Montgomery factory, which reached its annual production capacity of 300,000 vehicles for the first time in 2010.
Workers at the plant, which opened in 2005, built 300,500 vehicles last year, up 54 percent from 2009. The Sonata represented the majority of last year's total, as 218,607 of the popular sedans rolled off the assembly lines. The balance included the redesigned Elantra compact sedan, which the Montgomery plant started mass producing in November, as well as the Santa Fe SUV, which was moved to a Kia plant in Georgia to make way for the Elantra.
Honda's Lincoln plant also introduced a redesigned vehicle in the market last year, as the new Odyssey minivan hit dealer showrooms in September. Workers there built 272,082 vehicles last year, including Odysseys, Pilot SUVs, Ridgeline pickups and V-6 Accord sedans.
While that total remains below the Lincoln factory's annual capacity of 300,000 vehicles, it's a 50 percent increase from its 2009 output.
Mercedes-Benz, which has not yet released an official production total for 2010, produced 138,701 vehicles at its Vance factory last year, according to an estimate from the Automotive News Data Center.
That's a 53 percent improvement from 2009's output at the plant, which builds M-Class SUVs, GL-Class full-size SUVs and R-Class crossovers.