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How the Japanese tsunami changed the auto industry

(MoneyWatch) As we near the first anniversary of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, its effects linger not only in that country but also in the American auto industry.

The disaster disrupted supplies of made-in-Japan models like the Toyota Prius and Honda Fit, as well as the flow of parts for some cars assembled in the U.S. As a result, shoppers who might have bought a Toyota or Honda last year bought Chevrolets and Fords, as General Motors and Ford gained market share.

Part of the U.S. companies' ability to pick up sales resulted from being ready with small, high-MPG cars as gas prices were rising then as now. Sales shot up for models like the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta, along with models from Korean maker Hyundai. "If this had happened five years earlier, loyal Toyota and Honda buyers would just have waited it out," says Jesse Toprak, vice president for industry analysis at the automotive web site "Now the competition is much better, and buyers found that other companies had cars that are as good or better."

Toyota and Honda began bouncing back as soon as they restored full inventories late last year. Toyota's U.S. market share of 13.9% is nearly back to its pre-disaster levels, as is Honda's 9.6%. And in the Consumer Reports rankings released last week, Toyota models scored five of the 10 "Top Picks."

But Toyota may be unable to resume its gains at the expense of U.S. and other companies that it was scoring before the 2010 recalls damaged its quality image and the Japanese disaster disrupted sales. "I think the growth trajectory for Toyota has changed," says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president for forecasting at consulting firm LMC Automotive. Toyota is unlikely to get back to the 17% market share it enjoyed in 2009, Schuster adds.

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Schuster also thinks cautious redesigns of top models may hurt Toyota and Honda in the long run. "Both the new Toyota Camry and Honda Civic have conservative styling while cars like the Hyundai Sonata and some Ford models have eye-catching styling," he notes. "The marketplace has changed."

Here is how the analysts see the future shaping up for the three Detroit-based companies:

-- General Motors: GM already has regained the title of best-selling auto maker worldwide, which it previously had lost to Toyota. After topping a 20% U.S. market share at times last year, GM settled back to 18.8% in February. Both Schuster and Toprak of TrueCar expect the company to hold steady in 2012 at around that level. The Chevrolet Cruze small car continues to sell well. A new small Cadillac model, the ATS, and a redesigned mid-size Chevrolet Malibu are expected to boost sales.

-- Ford Motor: The company's Ford and Lincoln brands hit a high point in market share of 17.5% last year, but settled back to 15.5% in February. Schuster expects that a stylishly redesigned mid-size Ford Fusion going on sale in the fall will help Ford regain share. Even as gas prices have risen, Ford's F-series pickup retained its long-time title as best-selling vehicle in the U.S.

-- Chrysler Group: From being the most sickly before the U.S. bailout and its takeover by Fiat, Chrysler has rebounded remarkably. Its sales in February were 37% higher than a year earlier as its Jeep line and Chrysler 200 and 300 sold well. Though benefiting less than GM and Ford from small, high-MPG cars, Chrysler does offer the stylish Fiat 500 and will add the fuel-efficient Dodge Dart by early summer. Chrysler hit an 11.1% market share in February, but Schuster expects the company's 2012 number to be closer to the 10.8% from the end of 2011.

After stronger than expected February auto sales, analysts now are projecting total U.S. auto sales of about 14 million, up from 12.8 million in 2011. If that forecast holds, barring trouble with Iran or another shock, just maintaining market share would translate to a 9% gain in sales.

Looking back, TrueCar's Jesse Toprak sums it up this way: "Part of the Detroit gains resulted from the Japanese auto makers' problems. But you have to give the U.S. companies credit for having better products and marketing them better than in the past."

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