Just three years after the near-collapse of the U.S. auto industry, Detroit's big three are healthy again and regaining some of the market share they lost to Japanese auto makers over recent decades. New models such as the Buick Encore small SUV are rolling out again at this week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
But can the Detroit companies fend off a resurgent Toyota and Honda, now recovered from the disruptions of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami? Volkswagen, along with Korean makers Hyundai and Kia, has also been gaining market share recently.
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all gained market share in 2011, for the first time since 1988. But to see how things have changed since Detroit's heyday, their collective total in 1988 was 73 percent; in 2011, it was 47 percent. General Motors, with 19.6 percent of the U.S. market plus gains in China and elsewhere, also regained its title of top-selling global auto maker after trailing Toyota since 2008. But after the supply disruption following the tsunami in Japan, Toyota appears to be bouncing back. Its Camry retained its title of best-selling car in the U.S. for all of 2011 even though it trailed competitors earlier in the year.
The Detroit companies are putting more attractive models in the showroom than they were a few years ago, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for research firm LMC Automotive. For instance, General Motors has a strong-selling small car for the first time in decades: the compact Chevrolet Cruze. GM's subcompact Chevrolet Sonic also has been well received.
And Ford, which had a 16.8 percent market share in 2011, introduced a sleek,mid-sized sedan this week at the Detroit show, boasting lots of new technology and a plug-in hybrid version. Ford's recent small cars, the Fiesta and the Focus, also are selling well.
But Chrysler has had the biggest resurgence of all after being taken over by Fiat during the 2008 government bailout. Chrysler sales gained 26 percent in 2011 and its market share jumped from 9.4 percent to 10.7 percent. And Chrysler is making the most of its Italian connection, with cars such as-- developed from a model of Alfa Romeo, also owned by Fiat.
Partly as a result of the supply disruptions, Toyota dropped in market share to 12.9 percent from 15.2 percent a year earlier. Honda declined from 10.6 percent to 9.0 percent. But non-Japanese makers gained, with Volkswagen up from 2.2 percent to 2.5 percent as its redesigned Passat and Jetta sold well. Korean corporate stable mates Hyundai and Kia, with cars featuring high style and high gas mileage, together accounted for 8.9 percent of the market, up from 7.7 percent.
Can the Detroit auto makers keep up their gains? With their inventories replenished, Toyota and Honda surely will be pushing to make up for lost sales. Volkswagen is pushing aggressive sales goals here, and Hyundai and Kia have attractive new models. But unlike the years before the financial crisis of 2008, GM, Ford and Chrysler have a steady pipeline of sharp-looking new models including small cars that will fare well if gas prices soar again. And, of course, many shoppers will buy American if they have equal choices.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.