DETROIT -- Toyota is back. It's putting a year of earthquake-related shortages behind it and grabbing sales from stumbling General Motors and Ford.
Toyota's sales rose 12 percent in April, and its share of the market returned to levels it hasn't seen since before the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. Its sales outpaced the industry as a whole, which saw growth of 2.3 percent to 1.18 million cars and trucks last month, according to Autodata.
Toyota's resurgence could mean better deals as rivals fight for customers by offering discounts and promotions. Already, Toyota has announced zero-percent financing and other deals in May. It also means better selection for buyers. Toyota's factories are cranking out popular models that were missing from showrooms last year when the earthquake disrupted production.
Toyota snatched buyers from General Motors, Ford, Honda and Nissan, according to trade-in data from auto research site Edmunds.com. All of those companies saw sales fall in April. Among those that saw sales gains was Chrysler, which posted a 20 percent jump.
April started slowly, but sales picked up toward the end of the month. Sales ran at an annual rate of 14.4 million, making it the fourth consecutive month in which the annualized pace has been 14 million or more.
Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for the LMC Automotive consulting firm, said pent-up demand for new cars is driving sales, as the average age of vehicles on U.S. roads approaches a record 11 years. That demand continues even after a strong February and March.
"We're in a more pronounced recovery here," he said. GM now expects U.S. industrywide sales of 14 million to 14.5 million this year. That's still lower than the peak of 17 million in 2005, but better than the 2009 downturn, when 10.6 million new vehicles were sold.
High gas prices continued to fuel small-car sales, as they have all year. But pump prices appear to have peaked and have fallen 12 cents a gallon in the past month to $3.81 nationwide. The average price in California is $4.16 -- 15 cents lower than a month ago. That helped boost truck sales last month, which will mean higher profits for companies. Full-size pickups rose to 10 percent of the market from 8 percent last year, Ford U.S. sales analyst Erich Merkle said.
While Ford and GM benefited from Toyota's struggles last year, they're seeing that advantage fade.
Ford outsold Toyota by 2,314 vehicles in April. Only one month earlier, it was outselling Toyota by nearly 20,000 vehicles. GM's lead over Toyota also has tightened.
Most of Toyota's growth is coming from buyers who are new to the brand, said Bob Carter, group vice president of the Toyota division in the U.S.
Toyota has now fully recovered from its earthquake-related slowdowns. It's entering May with 18,000 more cars and trucks to sell than it had a year ago, Carter said. Its incentive deals also show it has plenty in stock.
"There's no doubt the Japanese are back in the market," said Don Johnson, GM's U.S. sales chief.
Toyota's share of new car sales hit 15 percent, its highest level since December 2010. While that's below the 17-percent share it commanded in 2009, it's far higher than the 10.5 percent share it had last June.
U.S. car sales rose 2.3 percent in April over last year. Here are the top selling cars and trucks for the month, sales and percent change from April 2011. Note that Toyota Prius sales include three versions (the Prius V, Prius C and plug-in hybrid Prius) that weren't on sale in April 2011, in addition to the standard Prius.
Vehicle 2012 2011
Ford F-Series 47,453 4.4
Toyota Camry 36,820 20.9
Honda Accord 35,385 25.6
Chevy Silverado 30,749 4.8
Toyota Prius 25,168 101.7
Toyota Corolla 24,804 2.4
Honda Civic 24,423 -8.8
Honda CR-V 23,627 9.0
Chevy Malibu 21,906 -11.3
Ford Fusion 21,610 2.0