U.S. Automakers Poised to Capitalize on Japanese Shortages

Posted on May 20, 2011

Japan’s troubles are Detroit’s blessing when it comes to sales of new cars.

America’s homegrown automaking giants are poised to pick up sales from Japanese brands facing growing shortages of popular new models after the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

About 197,000 customers who might have automatically gravitated to Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans or other Japanese brands in the past are now “up for grabs,” says a report by consulting group A.T. Kearney. That number could jump to 328,000 by fall if Japanese factories aren’t at full capacity by then.

Best of all for General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler Group, the shortages come as they have some of their freshest new model lineups for fuel-efficient cars and crossovers in years.

“We have the opportunity to get consideration from consumers who might be in the market for a product right now and can’t find one,” says Ford market analyst George Pipas.

As Japanese makers’ shortages of small, gas-friendly cars are expected to deepen over the summer, some buyers appear to be giving U.S. brands a new chance. GM says 53% of buyers of its new Chevrolet Cruzecompact traded in a non-U.S. make last month. That’s 6 percentage points higher than last year for those who bought Cruze’s now-defunct forerunner, Cobalt.

Dealers are starting to see a little switcheroo, too. “I’ve got a customer who has owned seven Lexuses, and he’s going to buy a new (Jeep) Grand Cherokee,” says Terry Megee, a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealer in Georgetown, Del. His used car lot is full of imports that were traded for new domestic models.

The nation’s best-selling Ford dealer, Galpin Ford in Los Angeles, has run ads lately touting the “largest inventory anywhere,” says Beau Boeckmann, dealer vice president. But don’t look for splashy ads from U.S. automakers. “You don’t want the appearance of dancing on someone else’s grave,” says Rebecca Lindland, analyst at IHS Global Insight.

Yet, GM, Ford and Chrysler can’t just crank out more cars. After years of closing factories and slashing jobs, the Detroit 3 have reduced capacity since 2005 by 3 million cars a year, she says. Some plants are close to being maxed out even as demand soars. And high gas prices are also depleting inventories of in-demand small and fuel-efficient cars.

By Chris Woodyard, USA Today