U.S. auto sales rose 18 percent in April as strong consumer demand for fuel-efficient vehicles overcame the twin drags of rising fuel prices and spot shortages.
The seasonally adjusted annualized selling rate of 13.2 million was the third straight month above 13 million and fractionally higher than in March.
But while fuel prices and lean stocks developing from Japan's March 11 earthquake didn't derail the auto sales recovery in April, it certainly shook up the status quo.
Detroit- and Korean-based automakers handily outpaced product-short Japanese manufacturers.
Japanese automakers collectively lost 3.4 points of market share, while the Detroit 3 gained 1.5 points and Koreans grabbed 1.9 points.
At automakers with uncompromised inventory -- General Motors, Ford Motor and Hyundai-Kia -- cars sold much better than light trucks.
Don Johnson, head of U.S. sales at General Motors, said cars drove the automaker's 27 percent gains in April, noting the new Chevrolet Cruze compact nearly tripled the retail volume of the model it replaced, the Cobalt. Meanwhile, sales of two large SUVs fell: the Chevrolet Suburban down 31 percent, the Chevy Tahoe off 16 percent. Overall, GM cars rose 47 percent, trucks 11 percent.
"Consumers are continuing to rethink their vehicle choice," Johnson said.
April was a "missed opportunity" for Japanese automakers, short of some of their most popular fuel-efficient vehicles just when spiking fuel prices increased demand, said Jesse Toprak, vice president of TrueCar.com.
"Japanese automakers were not able to take advantage of a month in which natural demand was at a peak," he said. "Toyota could have sold 15 thousand more Prius hybrids if it had them."
Major players: haves and have-nots
April results split sharply into "haves" and "have-nots."
Automakers that had vehicles to sell did well. Those without adequate stock fared relatively poorly.
Japanese brands suffered. U.S. dealer inventories dwindled after assembly plant shutdowns and slowdowns because of parts shortages stemming from Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Toyota Motor Sales gained 1 percent, American Honda 10 percent and Nissan North America 12 percent.
April sales at Korean-based Hyundai-Kia, virtually unaffected by Japanese supplier woes, soared 47 percent. Detroit-based automakers, only lightly affected, did well, too.
General Motors jumped 27 percent.
Chrysler Group gained 23 percent.
Ford Motor sales rose just 13 percent overall, but the raw year-over-year comparison is deceiving. Last April's numbers include Volvo (since sold) and discontinued Mercury. Mercury sister franchise Lincoln was down 1 percent in April, but the Ford brand gained 24 percent.
Porsche, Saab soar
April was a month of extremes among the smaller players in the U.S. market.
Tight-inventory Japanese brands Mazda, Subaru and Suzuki posted single digit increases. But Mitsubishi more than doubled April sales to 8,081 units.
Porsche volume jumped 82 percent and April sales more than tripled at Saab, which is no longer part of General Motors.
Daimler sales rose 4 percent.
Closer to the 18 percent average increase for the industry, Volkswagen of America sales rose 19 percent, BMW Group 20 percent and Jaguar Land Rover 16 percent.
Ford still No. 1 U.S. brand
U.S. sales jumped 24 percent in April for Ford brand, extending its comfortable lead as America's best-selling marque so far this year. Chevrolet sales rose 26 percent in April to keep it second.
After four months, Ford and No. 2 Chevrolet each is up 24 percent from a year earlier. Ford has sold 657,301 cars and light trucks. Chevrolet is second with 586,299 units and Toyota is No. 3, with 510,063.
The positions are the same as in calendar 2010, but a reversal from 2008, when the order was Toyota, Chevrolet, Ford.
Incentives fall to pre-slump levels
Automaker per-vehicle incentives in April fell to pre-recession levels, say two companies that track them.
TrueCar.com puts the industry average at $2,386 per vehicle in April, down 11 percent from a year earlier and the lowest month since January 2006. Edmunds.com, which uses a different tracking method, says April spiffs averaged $2,118, the lowest it has tracked since October 2005.
ByTrueCar.com's reckoning, Hyundai-Kia spent the least of the seven largest automakers in April at $1,359 per vehicle, 33 percent less than a year earlier. Hyundai-Kia led the industry with a 47 percent increase last month.
General Motors spent the most at $3,524, up 6 percent from both March and April 2010, TrueCar.com said.
GM, while not providing specifics, disagrees. The automaker said its April spending was down about $400 from March.
Shaking up the market, take 2
April was a month with some unusual results:
- The Chevrolet brand outsold not just Toyota brand, but all of Toyota Motor Sales -- 169,794 units to 159,540.
- Hyundai-Kia captured its biggest U.S. market share at 9.4 percent – and in both April and the first four months, outsold all European brands combined.
- The BMW brand outsold Mercedes-Benz (not including Sprinter vans) in April -- 18,801 to 18,042. That was enough to push BMW ahead of Mercedes – by just 29 vehicles -- through the first four months as the top-selling U.S. luxury brand. Lexus, which held that sales title from 2000 to 2010, is running third at 64,932 – and its April sales fell 4 percent to 17,576 units.