Toyota is back. It's putting a year of earthquake-related shortages behind it and grabbing sales from stumbling General Motors and Ford.
Toyota's sales rose 12 percent in April, and its share of the market returned to levels it hasn't seen since before the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. Its sales outpaced the industry as a whole, which saw growth of 2.3 percent last month, according to Autodata Corp.
Toyota's resurgence could mean better deals as its rivals fight for customers by offering discounts and promotions. Already, Toyota has announced zero-percent financing and other deals in May. It also means better selection for buyers. Toyota's factories are cranking out popular models that were missing from showrooms last year when the earthquake disrupted production.
Toyota snatched buyers from General Motors, Ford, Honda and Nissan, according to trade-in data from auto research site Edmunds.com. All of those companies saw sales fall in April. Among those who saw sales gains was Chrysler, which posted a 20-percent jump.
April started slowly, but sales picked up toward the end of the month. It was the fourth straight month in which sales have run at an annual rate higher than 14 million.
Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for the LMC Automotive consulting firm, said pent-up demand for new cars is driving sales, as the average age of vehicles on U.S. roads approaches a record 11 years. That demand continues even after a strong February and March.
"We're in a more pronounced recovery here," he said. GM now expects U.S. industry-wide sales of 14 million to 14.5 million this year. That's still lower than the peak of 17 million in 2005, but better than the 2009 downturn, when 10.6 million new vehicles were sold.
High gas prices continued to fuel small car sales, as they have done all year. But prices appear to have peaked and have fallen 12 cents a gallon in the past month to $3.81. That helped boost truck sales last month, which will mean higher profits for companies. Full-size pickups rose to 10 percent of the market from 8 percent last year, Ford U.S. sales analyst Erich Merkle said.
While Ford and GM benefited from Toyota's struggles last year, they're seeing that advantage fade.
Consider this: Ford outsold Toyota by 2,314 vehicles in April. Only one month earlier, it was outselling Toyota by nearly 20,000 vehicles. GM's lead over Toyota also has tightened.
Most of Toyota's growth is coming from buyers who are new to the brand, said Bob Carter, group vice president of the Toyota division in the U.S.
Toyota has now fully recovered from its earthquake-related slowdowns. It's entering May with 18,000 more cars and trucks to sell than it had a year ago, Carter said. Its incentive deals also show it has plenty in stock.
"There's no doubt the Japanese are back in the market," said Don Johnson, GM's U.S. sales chief.
Toyota's share of new car sales hit 15 percent, its highest level since December 2010. While that's below the 17-percent share it commanded in 2009, before a series of safety recalls dented its reputation, it's far higher than the 10.5 percent share it had last June when it was dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake.
"I honestly feel like we're getting back to the norm," said Tammy Darvish, a Washington-area Toyota dealer. "This is the way it always has been and very well may possibly continue to be."
Carter said he expects to increase Toyota's share later this year because it is increasing production of Prius hybrids and Camrys. In April, he said, the company could have sold more of the cars if it had them. It also has a new sports car, the Scion FR-S, and a redesigned Avalon sedan going on sale.
Johnson, GM's U.S. sales chief, noted that Japanese automakers are also being aggressive in the rental-car market, which GM is trying to pull out of because it's less profitable.
Johnson said a 25-percent drop in rental fleet sales was partly to blame for GM's 8-percent sales decline in April. Buick, Cadillac and Chevy sales were down. Only GMC had an increase, and it was small at 4.5 percent.
Sales of the Chevrolet Cruze compact fell almost 28 percent to just over 18,000 as it faced growing competition from Ford, Hyundai and others. The Cruze has been a star for GM for more than a year, and April of 2011 was among its strongest months.
GM made up for some of that loss with strong sales of the new Sonic subcompact, which handily beat the Toyota Yaris and Ford Fiesta.
Plummeting Fiesta sales were among the reasons for Ford's 5-percent decline in April. Fiesta was down 44 percent, as buyers increasingly moved up to the larger Focus. The Fiesta is also facing new competition from the Prius C.
Other Japanese automakers didn't fare as well as Toyota. Nissan's sales were flat compared with last year. Sales of the all-electric Nissan Leaf fell 35 percent even though the car is at more dealerships than it was last year.
Honda said sales fell 2 percent. Strong demand for the new CR-V crossover and the Accord sedan were unable to make up for sliding sales of the Civic.
Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for the auto information site TrueCar.com, said Honda lost market share in April even though it spent an estimated $500 more per vehicle on incentives than Toyota. TrueCar estimated that Honda spent just below the industry average of $2,446 per vehicle, which was up 6 percent from last April. GM spent the most, at $3,156.
Other automakers reporting Tuesday:
_ Chrysler sales jumped 20 percent, with the Ram pickup posting a 19-percent gain. Chrysler was also helped at the smaller end of the lineup, where Fiat 500 small cars sold four times as many as they did last April. But KBB.com noted that Chrysler is offering $3,000 incentives on the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger, and said the company is relying too heavily on deals to drive sales.
_ Volkswagen of America Inc. said its sales rose 31.5 percent in April, helped by sales of its redesigned Passat and Beetle models.
_ Hyundai said its sales rose 1 percent, led by the new Accent and Veloster small cars. Hyundai also saw a 36-percent increase in sales of its luxury Genesis and Equus models.