Executives are hoping to wean dealers and customers off incentives. In January, GM offered incentives of about $3,200 per vehicle, down from $4,400 a year earlier, Docherty says. Competing automakers' incentives fell from $3,300 to $2,700 in the same period.
Jim Hawkins, a Chevrolet dealer from Danville, Pa., says dealers know they need to adjust to life without several months' worth of product on their lots.
"There's some product issues, but they've already got a 60- to 70-day supply companywide. We're just going to have to learn to work this way."
But will GM miss sales if U.S. demand skyrockets late this year? It could happen, DiGiovanni says.
"My message here to the senior leadership is it could turn quicker than we think, and we have to be prepared for that," DiGiovanni says. "Let's not miss the upside."
Last month DiGiovanni raised the low end of GM's 2010 U.S. light-vehicle forecast, saying sales would total 11.2 million to 11.7 million. The old forecast was 10.7 million to 11.7 million, up from 10.4 million sold in 2009.
But DiGiovanni has to keep weighing the chances that consumers will buy even more vehicles this year.
"There is some probability that the industry could be above" 11.7 million light vehicles, DiGiovanni says. "In our planning we do look at that, just to be prepared. It's not a 50 percent probability. It's less than that."
Skimpy supplies of the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain underscore the hazards of underestimating demand. Both those vehicles, selling without rebates, started the month with less than a 20-day supply. The Ingersoll, Ontario, plant that makes the hot crossovers already is running on three shifts, plus about three Saturdays a month.
Mark Frost, general manager of Jim Ellis Buick-GMC and Jim Ellis Chevrolet outside Atlanta, sold 130 vehicles in January. But he says his stores could have sold at least 30 more if they had had enough hot products. For instance, he got two Terrains last week for the first time since January. But he expects they will sell as fast as the two Equinoxes he got earlier in the week and delivered the same day.
"The second they're here, they're gone within 24 hours," Frost says. "It is frustrating that we know we could be selling a lot more vehicles, but it's a good indication for the future."
The success of those products surprised GM's forecasters, DiGiovanni says. Executives have said repeatedly that they're looking for ways to boost production in response, although the solution will be nontraditional, North American President Mark Reuss has said.
Vice Chairman Bob Lutz suggests one way to add output cheaply and quickly is to put less-automated tooling -- meaning less robotics, more workers -- in an unused plant, and Reuss once mentioned GM's shuttered plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., in a discussion about reopening factories. Chrysler used that strategy in the 1990s to capitalize on fast-growing demand, Lutz says.