Vabessa Fuhrmans:

Sergio Felice embodies a woeful present for European auto makers. He may also reflect a dim future.

Growing up in Italy, the 41-year-old bank consultant says, “it was always important to have a nice car.” Now living in Barcelona, he had been saving up to buy an Audi TT. Then Europe’s economic distress pushed him to reorganize his financial priorities, and owning a car is no longer one of them.

Even when better times return, he says, he probably won’t buy a car until he is in his 60s. He uses public transportation, a motorbike and car-sharing services, he says, and “I prefer to put the money I don’t spend on a car in a retirement plan.”

Behind Mr. Felice’s shift in driving habits lie trends that present Europe’s car makers with a hard prospect: Whenever the Continent crawls back from its debt-crisis ravages, its auto market likely won’t.

Europe’s largely unprofitable auto sector already is among the biggest industrial casualties of the crisis. New-car registrations in Europe have fallen to nearly a two-decade low. Most mass-market car makers are losing money on the Continent. Moody’s Investors Service Inc. estimates that PSA Peugeot Citroën, UG.FR -1.40% General Motors Co.’s GM -1.11% Opel, Fiat SpA and Ford Motor Co. F -1.07% will lose a combined €4.9 billion ($6.6 billion) in the region this year.