General Motors Co returned to the top spot in auto sales in April as high gasoline prices fed consumer hunger for more fuel-efficient cars.
GM and Ford Motor Co showed much faster growth rates than Toyota and other Japanese brands, in an early sign that supply disruptions as a result of Japan's March 11 earthquake are hitting Japanese manufacturers hardest.
An American resurgence seems to be occurring, said Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs.
GM sales were driven by its fuel-efficient Chevrolet compact cars and compact crossovers: the Cruze, Equinox and Terrain.
In March, for only the second time since 1998, Ford outsold the larger GM. But GM in April sold 18 percent more vehicles than Ford. Ford came in No. 2 after it showed a U.S. 16 percent sales gain compared with GM's 26 percent rise.
April sales remained on track on Tuesday afternoon to post a gain near the 16 percent level predicted by analysts.
Gary Bradshaw, portfolio manager with Hodges Capital Management in Dallas, said that a general U.S. economic recovery will allow consumers to continue buying cars at a rate that will also mean a gradual recovery in the auto industry.
As long as fuel prices don't go dramatically higher, car sales are going to continue at a pretty decent clip through the remainder of the year, Bradshaw said.
As for the success of GM and to a lesser degree Ford in April, Bradshaw said, Folks may be buying smaller cars, but they're loading them up with options that make them more lucrative for automakers.
Another beneficiary of the desire for cars that can go far on a gallon of gas was Hyundai Motor Co, which posted a 40 percent sales gain for its best showing ever for April. Its cars in April averaged 36.2 miles per gallon, the company said.
Toyota Motor Corp, No. 3 in the U.S. market behind GM and Ford, felt the impact of the Japanese earthquake and production shutdowns as its sales rose only 1.3 percent.
Japan's Honda Motor Co also showed weaker gains than its American counterparts with a 5.7 percent rise in sales.
Jesse Toprak, analyst with Truecar.com, said the Japanese automakers face even more difficulties in coming months.
This is only the beginning, Toprak said. The impact of the shortages will be more dramatic in the coming months for Toyota sales. Starting in June, it's probably not unreasonable to see double-digit percentage declines from Toyota.
In another sign of strength of the Detroit manufacturers, Chrysler Group LLC, managed by Italy's Fiat SpA, increased April sales 22 percent, its 13th straight month of year-on-year U.S. sales growth.
Retail sales, which do not include the bulk fleet totals, were up 25 percent for GM, 10 percent for Ford, and 37 percent for Chrysler.
The Cruze, the compact car that GM introduced last year, is now the second-biggest selling vehicle in the automaker's lineup, behind only its Silverado pickup truck. Cruze sales so far this year are about triple the sales of the car it replaced, the compact Cobalt.
Recently, rising fuel prices have led many to rethink their vehicle choice, said Don Johnson, GM's U.S. sales chief.
Ford sales analyst George Pipas said this week that Ford is also showing a major shift in consumer taste toward smaller and more fuel-efficient cars as gasoline prices rise.
Analysts said American consumers are shifting to both smaller cars and opting for more fuel-efficient and smaller engines -- sometimes with expensive options like turbocharging -- when they choose to buy larger vehicles in the face of rising fuel prices.
Pipas said the surprise of the year to him is that about half of the sales of Ford's best-selling model, the F-150 pickup truck, include V6 engines. At the beginning of the year, Ford only sold V8 engines in its F-150 trucks.
And at GM, April sales of vehicles with 4-cylinder engines made up 39 percent of its total, up from 27 percent a year ago.
GM's Johnson said that the automaker's first-quarter sales showed that 35 percent of retail sales were for vehicles that get at least 30 miles per gallon, compared with 19 percent two years ago.
U.S. retail gasoline prices rose 8 cents in the past week to $3.96 per gallon and are now $1.07 higher than a year ago, according to government figures released on Monday.
Al Castignetti, Nissan U.S. brand general manager for Nissan Motor Co, said he thinks that this year's gasoline price spike has been less jarring to consumers than 2008 when average pump prices first went above $4 per gallon.
Nissan's sales rose 12.2 percent in April.
JAPAN QUAKE IMPACT
A clear sign of the impact on auto sales for the Japanese automakers in the U.S. market is the decline in sales of luxury brands, which are made almost exclusively in Japan.
Toyota's luxury brand Lexus sales fell 18 percent in April, Honda's Acura brand sales fell 4.2 percent and for Nissan's luxury brand Infiniti, April sales fell 6 percent.
On Monday in Japan, new-vehicle sales in April halved, sinking to the lowest monthly tally on record, as Japanese automakers felt the full brunt of the March earthquake.
Also on Monday, French car sales fell 1.2 percent, reflecting the end of a scrappage scheme. In Italy, they fell to the lowest level in 15 years.
The Japanese automakers are not expected to return to normal production levels until the end of the year.
Toyota and Honda models have dominated the compact car segment of the U.S. auto industry since the 1980s.
As the number of fuel-efficient cars from Japan declines, U.S. brands from GM and Ford are seen as the most likely to gain, analysts said. Chrysler is still developing its small-car lineup.
The strong showing of American automakers in their home market and the chance that they can make short-term gains on their Japanese rivals comes as they face United Auto Worker union talks later this summer. The UAW has said that it will push for a share of the automakers' gains.
Toyota dealers are expected to experience thin inventories in May and June in particular, according to U.S. publicly traded auto dealers groups including AutoNation Inc and Group 1 Automotive .
GM shares ended 2.5 percent higher at $32.99 and Ford shares dipped 0.5 percent to close at $15.37 on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Deepa Seetharaman, editing by Matthew Lewis)