Just when Detroit seemed to be luring them away, Americans are embracing Japanese cars again.
Toyota and Honda lost ground last year after the Japanese earthquake limited their supplies. But July's U.S. sales show they've nearly regained what they lost, at the expense of GM and Ford.
GM sales fell 6 percent and Ford sales were down 4 percent compared with last July. Honda's sales were up 45 percent and Toyota jumped 26 percent. Overall car and truck sales rose 9 percent to 1.15 million, according to Autodata Corp.
"Toyota and Honda have regained all of the share they lost, and much faster than we thought they would," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for the car buying site TrueCar.com. "Their customers appear to be a lot more loyal than we gave them credit for."
Toprak and others thought that newer, better products at GM and Ford, like the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus small cars, might permanently pull customers away from the Japanese after the earthquake disrupted their supplies. Toyota had virtually no Prius hybrids to sell last summer, for example.
But rivals' gains haven't lasted. The Cruze, which was the best-selling subcompact in the country last July, saw sales plummet 40 percent last month. It was far outsold by the Honda Civic, whose sales jumped more than 78 percent to just over 25,000. The Toyota Corolla also topped the Cruze and Focus, even though it's an older car with fewer features.
Toyota commanded 14.3 percent of the U.S. market in July, up from 12.3 percent a year ago and back to pre-earthquake levels. GM had a 17.4 percent share, which matched its pre-earthquake level and was down from 20.3 percent last July.
It was good news for the Japanese in an otherwise stagnant month for the U.S. auto industry. July sales stayed at nearly the same pace they were in June, or around 14.1 million on an annualized basis. While that's better than the 12.8 million cars and trucks sold in 2011, it's a slower pace than at the start of this year.
As a result, Toprak lowered his forecast for full-year sales to 14.3 million, from 14.5 million at the start of this year.
LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm, plans a similar cut to its forecast, said Jeff Schuster, LMC's senior vice president of forecasting.
Uncertainty over bad economic news from Europe, weak consumer confidence and slow job growth likely will scare some buyers away unless they absolutely have to buy a car, Schuster said.
"Our feeling is we're not going to get that lift in the second half of the year that we expected," he said.
Yet it's not all bad news. Sales aren't likely to drop because of pent-up demand from people replacing old vehicles, Schuster said. Sales most recently peaked at 17 million in 2005, and millions of owners need to replace those seven-year-old cars.
Financial enticements could also spark sales. In July, there were good deals on last year's models, low- or no-interest financing and strong trade-in values due to high used-car prices. Auto loans are available from banks for just over 3 percent, half of their levels two years ago.
TrueCar.com estimated Volkswagen's incentive spending was up 38 percent last month. Volkswagen was offering zero percent financing for five years on all non-diesel 2012 models. GM and Ford have limited incentive spending in an effort to improve brand image, but it is probably costing them some sales, Toprak said.
GM and Ford both blamed their slowdowns on lower sales to government, corporate and rental car fleets. Ford said its fleet sales were down 16 percent for the month, while GM's fell 15 percent.
But GM also saw declines for its Buick, GMC and Chevrolet brands. Only Cadillac was up 21 percent thanks to the new XTS sedan.
Despite the sales decline and last weekend's ouster of GM's marketing chief, company executives said they don't expect to alter marketing or factory production.
"There is no change in direction. There is no change in priorities," said Alan Batey, U.S. sales vice president and interim marketing head. "The team is focusing on executing."
That could mean trouble. Experts say that even though the company is making better cars and trucks, advertising has failed to get the message across.
At Ford, the Lincoln luxury brand fell 11 percent, dragging down sales. Sales of the Escape small SUV were down 12 percent after the new version, which reached dealerships in June, was recalled for safety problems. Ford said inventories were also hurt because it can't sell 3,500 Escapes that were damaged in a hail storm.
Ford's best performer was the Fusion sedan, which saw sales climb 21 percent.
Other carmakers reporting sales Wednesday:
-- Chrysler, the third biggest U.S. automaker, saw sales rise 13 percent, led by strong demand for its Ram pickup and Chrysler 200 sedan. Chrysler didn't gain much share last year, since it didn't have small cars to compete with the Japanese. But it has gained sales thanks to new small cars like the Dodge Dart.
-- Nissan's sales increased 16 percent thanks to a big jump at the luxury Infiniti brand, which has several new products.
-- Volkswagen's sales rose 27 percent, led by the new Passat midsize sedan.
-- Hyundai sales rose 4 percent thanks to strong sales of the new Elantra sedan.
Honda sales rise 45%, Toyota sees 26% leap
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