General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are facing their biggest test since beginning their recoveries three years ago. Even in a bullish market, the challenges are huge.
Before the end of last year, many automotive pundits brought up two distinct possibilities about how the big car-makers could be faring differently in 2012 from the way 2011 was ending up. And already, the industry seems to be tacking in the direction of both of them.
One clear trend after first-quarter sales is that Detroit's Big Three automakers are already giving back much of the hard-won share of the market that they gained over the last two years. The other big news: Toyota has recaptured much of the mojo it lost in the U.S. market over those two years.
As backed up by Autodata statistics and flagged by veteran auto journalist Micheline Maynard on her Forbes.com column, these trends together create some fascinating dynamics in an American auto market that seems to be comfortably in a recovery groove.
In fact, the rising market blunts the negative effects of the Big Three's share losses, but they are stark: So far this year, GM, Ford and Chrysler collectively have given back all of the share they gained in 2011, and then some, Maynard observes. They held 44.3 percent of the U.S. market this year through March, essentially back to where they were in 2009 after rising as high as a 47-percent share for all of 2011.
Meanwhile, Toyota was able to boost its U.S. share to 14.1 percent during the first quarter, according to Autodata, up from a lower share of 12.9 percent at the end of 2011, thanks to a series of problems including product recalls and the supply disaster wrought by the earthquake and tsunami last March. Strong sales of a newly expanded Prius family of vehicles and of the new Camry version have boosted Toyota.
But Toyota's resurgence isn't the Detroit Three's only problem. Demand for some of GM and Ford's hottest recent new models has cooled somewhat, at least on a relative basis. And hungry competitors that are essentially new to the main stage of the U.S. market, especially Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen, are digging harder for their own additional chunks of share.