Detroit gains share as U.S.-import price gap widens
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DETROIT -- Foreign cars are selling in the U.S. market at the biggest price premium to domestic autos in almost 12 years as a weak dollar curtails imports of lower-priced models, allowing General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. to gain share.
The average selling price for a new imported car climbed to a record high of $31,536 in August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
That was $7,614 more than the average domestic-made car, the biggest gap since December 1999.
With Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics in short supply, more Americans have turned to Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta cars.
The weak dollar discourages automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. from importing lower-priced cars, which have slimmer profit margins.
While Japan's tsunami disrupted auto exports, continued deliveries of premium-brand cars such as Volkswagen AG's Audi boosted luxury autos to a higher portion of imported-car sales, said Paul Ballew, chief economist for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in Columbus, Ohio.
"It's very hard to import, especially from Asia, small cars right now because of where the dollar is," he said in a telephone interview. "If you look at luxury-car sales the last few months, they're up double-digits from a year ago while small cars are down more than 20 percent."
The dollar dropped to a post-World War II low of 75.95 yen Aug. 19. It slumped to a 17-month low against the euro May 4, when it reached $1.4940 for the first time since December 2009. The euro rose 0.1 percent to 1.3769 per dollar at 4:35 p.m. New York time yesterday. The yen rose less than 0.1 percent to 76.84.
Japan's earthquake and tsunami in March disrupted car output by Toyota and Honda. The lack of vehicle inventories led Toyota and Honda to scale back incentives and boost transaction prices, said Chris Hopson, a Lexington, Massachusetts-based analyst at IHS Automotive.
GM and Ford have closed a quality gap to their Japanese rivals, according to researchers J.D. Power & Associates and Consumer Reports.
J.D. Power's 2009 study of new-car quality found that the difference in the number of problems Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet owners had with their vehicles was "statistically insignificant."
Consumer Reports said in August it couldn't recommend Honda's Civic, citing rough ride and noise.
GM has gained a point of U.S. market share, rising to 20 percent through September, while Ford's share increased 0.1 point to 16.7 percent. Total U.S. light-vehicle deliveries increased 10 percent from last year to the highest nine-month total since 2008.
The surging yen may deter Japanese automakers from using aggressive discounts late this year to try to reclaim U.S. market share.
IHS is "not expecting more than usual year-end clearance promotions, along with perhaps some marketing activity" from Toyota and Honda, Hopson wrote in an e-mail.
Industrywide average spending on incentives in the U.S. fell 9.6 percent through September to $2,498 per vehicle, according to Autodata Corp.
Discount offers in September fell 3.5 percent from a year earlier to $2,653 on average, according to the Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based researcher.
While models made in Japan are now more available than in August, incentives are "clearly not" surging, probably because of the strong yen relative to the dollar, Himanshu Patel, a New York-based analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote in an Oct. 4 research note.
Toyota, Honda, and Nissan Motor Co. are shifting production out of Japan as the surging yen erodes the profitability of building cars in their home market.
Nissan is scheduled to open a new 200,000-unit assembly plant in Brazil in 2014 and has boosted investment in factories in Mexico and Thailand for small cars that it says can no longer be built profitably in Japan.
"If Japan wants employment, you're going to have to do something about establishing a normal exchange rate," Carlos Ghosn, chief executive officer of Yokohama, Japan-based Nissan, said in an Oct. 6 interview. "If this rate was to stay for a while, I think you're going to see a hollowing out of the industry."
Toyota plans to spend 26.3 billion yen to build a second factory in Indonesia and is setting up a production hub with a network of suppliers in the Southeast Asian country as it aims to get half its sales from emerging markets by 2015.
Honda said Oct. 5 it will reduce exports to as little as 10 percent of domestic production, from 34 percent last year.
Volkswagen opened a new factory in Tennessee in May, and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG completed an expansion of its South Carolina assembly plant late last year.
"Import manufacturers cannot afford to do what they've normally done in terms of bringing in products from Asian markets," Nationwide's Ballew said. "You're looking at some temporary anomalies, but you're also looking at some structural changes. There is some renewed energy to bring manufacturing into the U.S."