Japanese automakers did not respond to calls last week about whether imports would increase — a politically sensitive subject. Miller says Honda would increase Civic imports only as a last resort.
Inventories are low on high-demand models, especially those with four-cylinder engines, while auto dealership lots bulge with unsold full-sized pickups and SUVs. In the 12 months ending May 1, U.S. dealership inventories shrank to 54 days supply from 59 for cars, while light-truck inventories soared to 89 days supply from 67.
"May was a watershed month," said Jim Farley, Ford group vice president for marketing. "We are as an industry catching up with the breathtaking choices that the customers are now making."
GM, Ford Motor and Chrysler LLC are:
-- Boosting output of smaller cars with overtime and additional shifts.
-- Cutting production of unpopular vehicles.
-- Boosting incentives on selected models.
-- Changing ads to tout fuel economy.
-- Slashing fleet sales to divert more cars to dealers.
But with the exception of the Chevrolet Aveo from Korea and the Saturn Astra from Germany, the Detroit 3 have no high-mileage cars immediately available to import.
Many Asian brands limit imports, hoping to defuse charges of eliminating U.S. jobs. Compared with the first five months of 2007, Asian automakers this year cut imports 1.2 percent to 1.61 million units.
Honda spokesman Miller says Honda will begin assembling the Civic at its new plant in Greensburg, Ind., in October. Until then, he says, Honda will rely on plant flexibility to meet demand. "We've built a lot of flexibility into our system," Miller says, "so we're in a good position to take advantage of the shift to the small cars."
The key to having enough Civics to meet demand is Honda's Alliston, Ontario, plant. Honda of Canada Manufacturing Inc.'s Alliston Line 2 assembles the Acura MDX crossover and Honda Ridgeline pickup truck, the automaker's two largest vehicles. Honda added the Civic to this assembly line last year.
At Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., spokesman Xavier Dominicis said that for the Corolla, "The first place we would look would be to increase capacity here." The Corolla is built in the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. joint-venture plant in Fremont, Calif., and at Toyota's plant in Cambridge, Ontario. Dominicis said that for the Camry, "our inventory situation is actually OK."
Meanwhile, GM plans to close four truck plants and add shifts at mid-sized car plants in Orion Township, Mich., and Lordstown, Ohio.
Since late April, Chrysler has been working regular overtime at its Belvidere, Ill., plant, where its three smallest vehicles are assembled: the Dodge Caliber car, and Jeep Compass and Patriot crossovers.
In May, Ford dealers sold 91 percent of the Focus models they had in stock as of May 1. So sustaining such a high rate of sales will be nearly impossible, said Ford's head sales analyst, George Pipas, adding, "So how do you sell 30,000 again next month?"
Kathy Jackson, Ralph Kisiel, Jamie LaReau, Mark Rechtin, Bradford Wernle and Amy Wilson contributed to this report