With gas prices making the wrong kinds of headlines on a daily basis this year as winters melts into spring, no one would be surprised if U.S. auto sales also melted away. That has hardly been the case, at least so far.
Japanese carmakers Toyota (NYSE:TM), Honda (NYSE:HMC) and Nissan (PINK:NSANY) have always left Detroit in the dust in previous periods when pump prices leaped to alarming levels. But this time, the U.S. companies are better prepared. General Motors (NYSE:GM), Ford (NYSE:F) and Chrysler all have lineups now that are studded with fuel-efficient vehicles that Americans actually want to buy.
Just look at some the top sellers coming out of Detroit these days: Ford’s Focus, GM’s Chevy Cruze and Chrysler’s 200. In February, Focus sales more than doubled to 23,350; Cruze rose 10% to over 20,000; and the 200 more than quadrupled over February 2011, according to AP tallies.
Just as important in terms of keeping American consumers coming into the showrooms, even Detroit’s most profitable vehicles — pickup trucks and SUVs — scored healthy gains. Ford pointed out that the fuel economy theme has clearly made itself felt in perennial top-selling F-150 pickup line, with the new six-cylinder models selling more briskly than the traditional eight-cylinder versions.
That’s not to say truck and SUV sales won’t slam to a stop if gasoline keeps rising, as many predictions are saying, to $5 a gallon this summer. Still, at least this time around Detroit appears to be better armed to combat consumer anxieties about rising gas prices than it has ever been in the past.