US automakers grab market share in August

Posted Sept. 01, 2011, at 8:22 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 02, 2011, at 11:12 a.m.

DETROIT — The Detroit Three gained U.S. share in August for the sixth straight month, benefiting from Japanese automakers’ inventory woes and fresh lineups. But Japanese competitors are preparing to fight back.

August sales were up 7.5 percent year-over-year. But sales were up a stronger 11.1 percent at Ford, 18 percent at General Motors and 30.6 percent at Chrysler Group, helping the Detroit Three end the month with 49 percent of U.S. auto sales, a 4.5 percentage point gain.

Nissan has also gained at the expense of its in-country rivals. It posted a 19.2 percent gain last month and its market share has improved 0.2 points through August, compared with a combined four-point share loss from Toyota and Honda, which registered sales declines of 12.7 percent and 24.3 percent, respectively, in August.

But Toyota expects to start growing dealer stocks this month, and Honda is kicking off months of overtime. Nissan, which has fared better than its in-country competitors, already has its inventory back to normal levels. The increased production at Toyota and Honda will take weeks to make a noticeable dent at dealership lots, so the Detroit Three share will likely stay strong until the st art of 2012, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with vehicle pricing site TrueCar.com.

Still, he said, Chrysler, General Motors and Ford have used the months since March’s production-disrupting Japanese earthquake and tsunami to convert longtime Asian buyers. For instance, GM insists the momentum it has gained with the Chevrolet Cruze, August’s fifth-best-selling vehicle in the U.S., will put it on Japanese buyers’ shopping lists this fall.

“Part of what might be perceived as marketing spin from the domestics has some truth to it this time around,” Toprak said. “Their product is the best it’s ever been.”

While August sales were up, economic worries kept the pace of sales from recovering to levels from earlier in the year. Sales finished last month at a 12.1 million seasonally adjusted annual rate, according to Autodata. That’s less than the 12.5 million pace from January through July.

Still, after three years of sales below previously normal rates of 15 million to 16 million, auto executives said they believed consumers would continue to trickle back into the market this year. They maintained their predictions for sales in the 12.5 million to 12.8 million range this year, up from 11.6 million in 2010.

“The economy is expanding at a lower pace,” Ford economist Jenny Lin said. She pointed to President Barack Obama’s jobs-related speech next week as a source of hope for the auto industry. “If the government tries and shows some leadership … as long as it is stimulating the overall economy, I think that will be helpful for overall auto sales.”

In August, Chrysler’s sales gain led the Detroit Three, after the company took longer than GM and Ford to recover from its restructuring and recession-era sales woes. The company’s 30.6 percent gain helped Chrysler outsell Toyota for the third month this year and register its best August since 2007.

Ford’s sales increased 11 percent, riding the recent momentum of its long-struggling Lincoln brand, which improved 25 percent from August 2010.

GM grew 18 percent, for its seventh gain in U.S. market share in eight months. The Cruze was a top performer, helping GM post an unrivaled 155 percent gain in small car sales.

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