Toyota, Honda losing speed to compact rivals
Just a year ago, no one could touch the kings of compact cars, the venerable Toyota Corolla and feisty Honda Civic.

Both stood so far above the more prosaic vehicles in the segment that they were automatic choices for most consumers.

But the segment today — reshaped by intense competition, growing fuel economy considerations and a devastating earthquake — looks little like it did in 2010.

Although the Corolla remains the best-selling car in the segment, the all-new Chevrolet Cruze has pushed its way into second place, selling at the rate of 21,000 cars a month and growing. The Civic has dropped to No. 3, according to Automotive News.

"Honda and Toyota's dominance is fading, and both face formidable competition from the domestics and Koreans," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends at TrueCar.com. "They've never seen that before."

As inventory-limited Japanese brands drop, the all-new Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra are also on the rise. Through August, for instance, the Elantra's sales were up 46.8 percent, according to Automotive News.

Toyota, Honda and Subaru suffered substantial damage to their factories after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March, and all still lack inventory.

Toyota of Lewisville, Texas, for example, is sold out of Corollas and Scions, and may not have a full inventory until sometime this month, said Rene Isip, majority partner of the dealership.

"If the field was level, I'd like to see how all of this plays out," Isip said. "If we still had inventory, Hyundai and the domestics might be up, but not like they are."

Some analysts aren't so sure. Even before the earthquake, the Corolla and Civic looked vulnerable, they say.

The Corolla is several model years old and wasn't considered stylish when it was new. The Civic, while new, has been coolly received, failing for the first time in years to win a "recommended" rating from Consumer Reports.

"Lots of Corollas were going into (rental) fleet sales before the earthquake and tsunami," said Rebecca Lindland, director of research for IHS Automotive in New York. "And when Consumer Reports did not give the Civic a 'recommended,' that was a sea change."

Though most analysts expect Toyota and Honda to fight back hard when they have full supplies of cars, they doubt that either will dominate the segment again.

"This is beyond the tsunami and earthquake," said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director of KBB.com. "The competition is catching up. The Japanese brands are still really good, but the Koreans and domestics are better than ever."

Toyota, meanwhile, believes that the Corolla will re-establish its leadership position once inventories are back to normal this month.

"While other models may make short-term inroads, there is no way they can match Corolla's 40-plus year history of providing high-value, high-quality vehicles," said Mary Legallet, Corolla product manager.

The compact segment is the largest in the new-car industry but typically generates the lowest profit, analysts say. For years, it attracted mostly young buyers with limited income or retirees looking to downsize. Domestic automakers largely ignored it when pickups and SUVs were hot, relying on trucks for most of their revenue.

But now everyone in the industry faces daunting new fuel-economy standards beginning in 2016, and compacts will be crucial to automakers' efforts to meet those rules, which demand an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

In addition, consumer preferences are changing, says George Pipas, a veteran sales analyst at Ford Motor Co.