April US auto sales up as Toyota wins back buyers

US auto sales up in April, with Toyota and Chrysler among the biggest gainers

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- After a tough year of earthquake-related shortages, Toyota is back.

In April, Toyota's share of U.S. auto sales likely climbed back to a level not seen since last year's Japanese earthquake, which disrupted production. Replenished supplies and hot sellers like the new Camry sedan and Prius C subcompact drove sales, analysts say.

Toyota Motor Corp. and other automakers report their U.S. April sales later Tuesday.

Auto buying site TrueCar.com predicts Toyota's U.S. market share reached 15.3 percent last month, its highest level since December 2010. That's up from a low of 12.5 percent last September, when the automaker sold 61,600 fewer vehicles than it's expected to in April.

"We knew they were going to be able to gain back part of their share this year, but they're doing it quicker than we thought. The new products are doing well," says Jesse Toprak, TrueCar's vice president of market intelligence.

Nissan Motor Co. and Chrysler Group may also report April gains, thanks to rebates of $2,000 or more on the Nissan Altima and Chrysler 200 sedans, auto information site Kelley Blue Book says.

Meanwhile, the annual sales rate likely slowed compared with the blistering pace of February and March. But analysts aren't concerned, saying April had more Sundays than March and fewer cars are sold on Sundays. Auto research site Edmunds.com expects sales to rise 2 percent over April of 2011 to nearly 1.2 million cars and trucks.

Small and midsize cars continued to be big sellers. Gas prices finally fell in April after a four-month surge, but car buyers remain wary of gas guzzlers. Car sales will rise 20 percent over last April, compared with a 7-percent increase for trucks, predicts Barclay's analyst Brian Johnson. Gas is currently averaging $3.82 per gallon, down 11 cents from a month ago.

Still, prices are high and concern about fuel costs likely helped Toyota. The company recently rolled out two new versions of its popular Prius hybrid, the Prius V wagon and Prius C subcompact. Toyota sold nearly 10,000 of those two models in March.

Toyota's market share is still not as high as it was in 2009, when it controlled 17 percent of the U.S. market. The following year, Toyota's share fell after it recalled millions of vehicles for safety issues. It fell again last year after the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan hurt production. It took Toyota nearly a year to get its inventory back to normal levels.

Toyota's resurgence is hurting rivals. Honda Motor Co. and General Motors Co. are both expected to report double-digit sales declines in April, according to Kelley Blue Book. And Honda is losing share even though it's spending an estimated $500 more per vehicle on incentives than Toyota, Toprak says.

"That shows the strength of Toyota's product lineup," he says.

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