Auto sales maintained a strong pace in April, but some carmakers - especially Chrysler, Volkswagen and Toyota - had a decided advantage.
Chrysler's sales rose 20 percent from a year earlier as sales of its midsize Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger soared, along with the fullsize Chrysler 300. Toyota's rebound from last year's earthquake and tsunami continued to gain traction. By contrast, Ford and General Motors both lost market share from a year earlier, partly because they are selling fewer cars to rental companies and corporate fleets.
There were three fewer selling days this April compared with April 2011, but overall the industry's annual selling rate was 14.4 million, about even with March's pace and up from 13.2 million a year earlier.
Chrysler has gained two full points of market share so far this year even without the new Dodge Dart, that will begin to arrive in dealerships in June.
"The challenge is to fuel this momentum," Chrysler chief marketing officer Olivier Francois said last week. "We have the combination of a new car like the Dart and the second full year of the (Chrysler) 300, 200, (Dodge) Durango and (Jeep) Compass."
GM's sales declined 8.2 percent and Ford's slipped about 5 percent. Toyota posted an 11.6 percent increase, while Volkswagen's sales jumped 27.3 percent.
"Toyota is the story of the year," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence for TrueCar.com.
Last year, Toyota was reeling from production cuts caused by the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan. That led to lost market share in the U.S.
"Toyota has not only recovered all of the market share they lost last year, but they did it at a much faster pace than anyone anticipated," Toprak said.
Sales of the redesigned Camry surged 20.9 percent. Sales of the four variations of
the Prius hybrid brand doubled from a year ago. Prius offers a family of hybrids, including a new wagon, the subcompact Prius c and a plug-in hybrid option.
"I think what you are going to see in the industry is the winners are going to be driven off of all the new product entries this year," said Bob Carter, Toyota's group vice president and general manager.
Honda has struggled to regain its footing. Its sales declined 2.2 percent in April as sales of the Civic compact car dropped 8.8 percent.
Ford is spending less on incentives. GM is continuing to de-emphasize its fleet business and that cost it market share, at least in April.
Sales of Ford's subcompact Fiesta dropped 43.9 percent and sales of the Escape SUV declined 20 percent.
Ford cut its incentives 12.6 percent compared with March to $2,360, according to Edmunds.com. The company also is struggling to keep up with demand for its Focus compact car and is in the middle of selling down its popular Ford Escape to make way for a redesigned model.
"We are eagerly looking forward to the increase in Focus production," said Ken Czubay, Ford vice president of marketing, sales and service.
When asked if GM is losing sales to competitors such as Chrysler, Toyota and Volkswagen - all of whom reported substantial sales increases despite having three fewer days to sell - Johnson said it would take more than one month's data to know.