For two days last week, Honda dealer Rene Isip stalked the lanes at the Manheim auto auction in Orlando, Fla., in search of used Civic and Fit cars for his store in Katy, Texas.
Isip's dealership, one of the top 100 Honda stores in the nation, was almost depleted of new ones.
"We're out of Fits," he said, "and our days supply of Civics is in the single digits."
Getting used models was brutal, too.
"I'm standing here looking right now," he told Automotive News via cell phone. "A 1-year-old used Civic is running about $1,000 over sticker of a brand new 2008. And the dealers are paying it."
Honda's small cars — which both get about 34 mpg on the highway — are hotter than a $2 pistol on the Fourth of July. As $4-a-gallon gasoline pushed consumers to fuel economy, the Civic was America's best-selling vehicle last month at 53,299 units. The Civic's previous best-ever month was 39,993 units in May 2007. And Honda sold 8,205 Fits, up 53 percent over May 2007.
Dealers fear they may run out of Civics and Fits altogether if the automaker can't bump up production. Honda uses a turn-and-earn allocation system, but because of strained supplies, retailers say they are turning more than they can earn.
Dealers say they have ample supplies of Accords and light trucks but can't keep up with sales of the smaller vehicles.
"Civics are going like crazy, and there are no hybrids," said Ernie Boch, owner of Boch Honda in Norwood, Mass., the top-selling Honda store in the country.
In the past month and a half, Boch said, he has spent $2 million buying cars from other dealers around the country.
"I wanted to hedge my bets, so I bought from other dealers," he said. "We could see it coming. All indications are that Honda could run out of cars."
Toyota dealers are scrambling, too. The Corolla/Matrix zoomed to the No. 2 sales spot in May at 52,286 units — less than 500 shy of the Civic. At David Maus Toyota in Sanford, Fla., north of Orlando, the dealership's managers found out that Toyota had 30 new Corollas sitting at the port in Jacksonville that had not been sold to a dealer.
"We bought them all," said Melvin McCune, new-car sales manager.