With only a few holdouts, the import brands are leaning heavily on incentives to avoid ballooning inventories of unsold vehicles.
Luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti and Lexus have increased incentives sharply to control inventories despite collapsing sales.
Edmunds.com says Mercedes' incentives per vehicle averaged $4,185 in February, up nearly 80 percent from the February 2008 figure. Meanwhile, Lexus' incentives totaled $3,402 per vehicle, quadruple the year-ago average.
"Everyone is fighting for market share because there are fewer buyers in the marketplace," says Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with Edmunds.com. "Even the luxury players are turning to incentives to pump up volume."
The incentive data published by Edmunds.com include cash rebates, dealer cash, APR programs and leasing subvention.
Among the mass market import brands, Kia kept a tight lid on inventories by ladling out big incentives. Last month Kia's incentives averaged $4,148 per vehicle, double its average expenditure from a year ago.
The imports are adopting tactics honed by the Detroit 3, which traditionally rely on incentives to sell vehicles during a recession. For example, the Chrysler brand spent $6,300 per vehicle in February — the most of any brand.
But this is new territory for many imports, which rarely have suffered the kind of bloated vehicle inventory that periodically afflicts the Detroit 3.
The automakers' actual inventories — a collective 2.9 million units for the import and domestic brands — are not sky-high compared with past years. A year ago, industry inventories stood at 3.5 million units.
But at the current dismal sales pace, it would take 101 days for dealers to move that much metal. A 60-day supply is generally considered ideal.