US auto sales up in June, but Japan still hurting

Posted July 01, 2011, at 7:05 p.m.

DETROIT — Gas prices hit a sweet spot for automakers last month. They fell far enough to spur pickup truck sales, yet remained so high that small cars sold well, sometimes just hours after reaching dealers’ lots.

That made June a good month for General Motors and Ford, which have traditionally relied on truck sales and now have strong line-ups of smaller, fuel-efficient models as well.

Toyota and Honda couldn’t take advantage, however. Their sales plummet more than 20 percent each as they ran short of cars because of the ongoing problems from the March earthquake in Japan.

Those declines — and the continuing weakness in the U.S. economy — meant sales grew more slowly in June than they might have. U.S. sales rose 7 percent to 1.05 million. Analysts had expected a double-digit gain.

Sales aren’t expected to pick back up until fall, when Japanese production is at full capacity.

“Some consumers have decided to sit on their hands and delay their purchases,” said Don Johnson, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales.

General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. both said their sales rose 10 percent. And the Chevrolet Cruze small car vaulted past perennial best-sellers like the Toyota Camry and the Honda Civic to become the best-selling car in America. Chrysler Group’s sales increased 30 percent thanks to popular new products like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chrysler 200 sedan.

Gas prices averaged $3.68 per gallon in June, cheaper than in May but hardly inexpensive. It was enough to change some buyers’ behaviors.

“There is a certain portion of consumers that react to gas prices almost on a daily basis, and they decide what to buy based on those prices,” said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insights for car pricing site TrueCar.com.

The drop in gas prices lured more pickup truck buyers. Chrysler reported a 35-percent increase in Ram truck sales, while Chevrolet Silverado sales rose 5 percent. Any jump in pickup sales helps the Detroit automakers, which sell more than five times as many pickups as foreign-based brands. But even Nissan Motor Co. benefited. Sales of its Frontier small pickup rose 51 percent.

Ford said even pickup buyers had their eye on gas prices. More than half of F-150 buyers chose smaller V-6 engines over V-8s. It was the first time smaller engines outsold larger ones since the 1980s.

Small cars also remained hot sellers. Sales of the Cruze more than doubled those of the car it replaced, the Chevrolet Cobalt, while sales of the Ford Fiesta subcompact were up 438 percent from last June.

But automakers could have sold more small cars without the supply disruptions in Japan. Sales of the Toyota Prius hybrid fell 61 percent to 4,340, their lowest level in seven years, according to TrueCar.com, while Honda Civic sales were down 35 percent. U.S. automakers sold as many small cars as they could make, but they couldn’t meet the demand for small cars alone.

The industry began June with a 30-day supply of compact and subcompact cars, and inventory has only gotten tighter, Ford’s top U.S. sales analyst George Pipas said. Chevrolet has only 18 days’ worth of the subcompact Aveo to sell. Some new Ford Focus small cars sold within hours of arriving at dealerships. A 60-day supply is more typical.

Toyota said it expects to deliver 36,000 Prius hybrids to U.S. dealers this summer and eventually top last year’s sales. Don Esmond, Toyota’s senior vice president for automotive operations, said the company expects production in Japan to be back to normal levels by the end of this month, while North American production will be back to 100 percent in September.

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