Despite the shaky status of the nation’s economy, U.S. automotive executives say they expect improvements in revenue to continue, which will translate into more capital investment in their operation and employment in the coming year, according to a recent survey by KPMG LLP.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of over 100 U.S. auto executives polled by KPMG said their companies increased revenue over last year, with 72% believing revenues will continue to increase in 2012 as well. In addition, more than half of the executives indicated they’ve added personnel since last year, and nearly two-thirds (62%) said their companies will continue to add employees next year – including 19% who predict industry headcount will rise by more than 7% in 2012.

“The survey results clearly demonstrate that the restructuring efforts of the past several years have helped U.S. auto manufacturers emerge more efficient and more competitive,” said Gary Silberg, KPMG’s national automotive industry leader. “Another indication that the industry is getting healthier is that these execs are telling us capital investment will get a boost even though most only expect modest improvement in the U.S. economy next year. These companies have cash on hand and are ready to put it to work.”

Specifically, KPMG’s poll found 69% of U.S. auto executives indicated that their companies have significant cash on their balance sheets, with 71% saying their companies will increase capital spending next year. The highest-priority investment areas for these executives are new models/products, new technologies, and strategic acquisitions, KPMG reported.

Another 55% of those polled said it is likely that their company will be involved in a merger or acquisition as a buyer, while 5% said they’ll be sellers.

Still, it’s not all peaches and cream, as all of the “cautious optimism” behind hiring and investment plans by U.S. auto executives are taking place against the backdrop of a tough economy, said Silberg.

“They are not projecting an economic turnaround for years,” he noted. “In fact, 83% of respondents to our survey predict the U.S. economy will remain flat or see only moderate improvement next year, with 61% saying a full economic recovery won’t happen until 2013-2014 or later.”

Beyond the economy, auto manufacturers continue to point to growth barriers such as pricing pressures, volatile commodity and input prices, and regulatory pressures. Specifically, when asked about government regulation that will have the most impact on the auto industry, executives most frequently cited the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards (52%), emissions standards (50%), and healthcare reform (44%).

KPMG also found concerns are rising about supply chain management within the automotive industry, as those executives polled point to rising commodity costs, capacity, and disruption of supply as the most significant challenges in their supply chain.

Still, despite those challenges, most of the auto execs in KPMG’s survey retained a positive outlook on growth for their industry. When asked what the key drivers of the projected revenue growth would be over the next three years, auto executives most frequently cited expansion into new geographic markets (53%), new models/products (48%), and acquisitions/joint ventures (39%).

In addition, the majority of U.S. auto executives surveyed by KPMG indicated that North America remains their primary growth market, followed by China and South America.

“Even though our economic recovery remains weak, there is pent-up demand for vehicles in the U.S.,” said Silberg. “And while current sales are not at their historic levels, the uptick we've seen over the past 18 months is clearly a good sign that things are headed in the right direction again for U.S. automakers.”