This year, for the first time since 1988, all three Detroit automakers have gained market share in the U.S.
Now they face the challenge of maintaining or adding to those gains. General Motors and Ford benefited from new fuel-efficient cars such as the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta that sold well when gas prices soared above $4 a gallon last spring.
A tragic, but large, contributing factor was last March's massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which caused a shortage of cars and trucks. Toyota and Honda are just beginning to recover.
Through November, the Detroit Three captured 47.2 percent of combined market share, up from 45.1 percent for the same period in 2010, Autodata said. For perspective, in 1988, the last time all three gained share, their collective piece of the pie swelled to 73.1 percent from 70.2 percent, according to WardsAuto.com.
"It becomes a sensitive issue when you are taking advantage of others during a tragedy, but the reality is, business is business," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for True-Car.com.
Chrysler emerged as the industry's star, with a 25 percent sales increase for the first 11 months of the year, more than double the industry's 10.4 percent growth. Watch out for Toyota next year. Japan's largest automaker is planning to launch 11 all-new or restyled vehicles, including a new Yaris, a plug-in Prius and a redesigned Lexus GS.
That gives Toyota a prime opportunity to move past two traumatic years dominated by the company's recall problems in 2010 and inventory shortages caused by this year's earthquake and tsunami. Already, Toyota has regained two percentage points of lost market share in the past two months as its inventory levels have recovered.
"We are in an excellent position to take advantage of a rebounding marketplace," Bob Carter, Toyota division vice president and general manager, said earlier this month.
Next year, Carter said, Toyota "will benefi t from the biggest influx of new products and updated products we've ever launched in our history."
Honda also is expected to rebound. Parts shortages caused by fl oods in Thailand disrupted key suppliers in October and November. Also, critics panned Honda's redesigned Civic this year for being bland.
But Toyota and Honda will face a more competitive market, analysts said. "The Japanese will gain some share back in 2012, but not close to what they lost in 2011," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for TrueCar.com.
Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of Edmunds.com, disagreed. Anwyl estimated that Toyota and Honda lost sales of 200,000 to 300,000 because of inventory shortages and consumers' perception that prices had increased because of those shortages.
Many of those buyers sat out of the market and are returning now. "There has been kind of a vacuum in the market," Anwyl said. "I think moving into next year, that vacuum isn't going to be there, and it actually could go in reverse." Still, in 2011, Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen and Nissan all gained market share and are determined to keep the momentum going.
"The gains were really spread across the players in the industry for a lot of different reasons," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive. "The environment today is so much more competitive than it was even just a couple of years ago."