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Japan tsunami brought home hard lessons for automakers

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The Japanese automakers first felt a sales hit last summer, when their collective US market share fell. By June 2011, the Detroit Three controlled 50 percent of the US market, according to Edmunds.com, about 4 percentage points more than it did one month before the tsunami.

Auto buyers who may have been considering fuel-efficient bestsellers like the Honda Fit or Toyota Prius were faced with having to wait several months before getting the car. The delay may have forced them to reconsider and purchase domestic equivalents like the Ford Focus, Ford Fusion, or Chevrolet Cruze.

But now, a year after the disaster, there is a different story. Aggressive sales and incentives helped Japan regain its lost market share to just under pre-tsunami levels in February. 

Natural disaster is not the only reason why market share for Japanese automakers slipped last year, according to Michael Robinet, manager director of IHS Automotive Consulting in Northville, Mich.

  • Frequent safety recalls by Toyota and Honda a year before the tsunami tarnished the reputation of both companies.
  • All three US domestic automakers which worked aggressively to retool the market with vehicles consumers wanted: smaller, more fuel efficient, and affordable, but also stylish and technologically smart.
  • US companies also got savvier about marketing cars to younger buyers, using social media and generally putting a new face on an industry that had, for a long time, needed reinvention.
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