Toyota and Honda dealers will wait until the fourth quarter -- or longer -- before their earthquake-hobbled inventory returns to normal.
Until then, expect firm transaction prices, modest incentives and considerable breathing room for the Detroit 3 quietly taking share from the two Japanese automakers.
A multibrand dealer, who declined to be named, said Toyota and Honda have told dealers privately that inventory will improve significantly around mid-October.
"But they won't wait for November on incentives," the dealer said. "They'll go hard after the market share they lost -- they have to."
Just when Toyota-Lexus-Scion and Honda-Acura inventories will return to normal -- and incentives start rising industrywide -- is still fuzzy.
"We're not expecting the normal Labor Day marketing push," says Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle valuation at Kelley Blue Book. "It could be November or December before Toyota and Honda bump up their incentives and then Detroit and the others match them."
Toyota Motor Sales spokesman Mike Michels says that even with resumed full Japanese production and North American plants now running at 110 percent, the automaker can't restore dealer stock to year-before levels until sometime in the first quarter of 2012.
At Honda, spokesman Ed Miller said the company's plants resumed full production Aug. 1 -- of all vehicles except the Civic. "We think demand will be increasing along with inventory," he said.
"We will continue to monitor the marketplace and use incentives as a tactic, not a long-term strategy. Advertising and other aspects of the business will continue to return to a more normal state as we approach the fourth quarter."
Toyota dealer Earl Stewart in Lake Park, Fla., said shortages of specific products -- for him high-volume models Prius and Corolla -- have been harder to take than the overall reduced shipments.
Stewart's new-vehicle sales plummeted starting with an anemic 140 in May although he expects to return to his post-2008 "new normal" of 250 in August as shipments accelerate.
"But it was humiliating being outsold [in May] by the Kia store in my area," he said.
The auto recovery has been blunted this year by high fuel prices and economic turmoil. But since Japan's devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, supply rather than other factors has defined U.S. sales winners and losers.
With adequate dealer supplies, most automakers have raised U.S. sales. But Toyota and Honda lost sales.
Nissan, in contrast, says its inventories are fine.
In North America, Toyota, Honda and Subaru have cut production because of parts shortages from quake-hit suppliers by 468,962 units between March and August, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
In turn, their combined U.S. inventory plummeted 60 percent, to 271,400 on Aug. 1 from 679,200 on March 1, just before the quake.
Meanwhile, the Detroit 3 and Hyundai-Kia took advantage of Toyota's and Honda's troubles to gain share.
In the four full months since the quake, sales at product-short Toyota, Honda and Subaru fell 196,509 units from year-before levels, a loss of 6.0 points of market share. Over the same period, Hyundai-Kia was the biggest share winner, up 1.9 points. Chrysler Group grabbed 1.4 points; General Motors, 1 point; and Ford, 0.2 point.
Subaru spokesman Mike McHale said the automaker will restore full production in September and lift U.S. dealer deliveries to all-time highs by November. The automaker will keep incentive levels lower than high-volume competitors.
Said McHale: "We've not been in that knife fight, and we never will be."