General Motors and Ford say they've learned from the recent past that they'd rather be consistently profitable than extra popular by boosting sales through costly incentives and special financing deals.
Today, more Americans are buying cars than the auto industry expected and some companies, including Volkswagen, Nissan and Toyota, have pledged to win more of the market.
Volkswagen, by lowering prices and making deals, for example, has increased its market share through April by about 20% compared with last year.
"Our objective is to grow faster than the market," said Jonathan Browning, CEO of Volkswagen of America.
GM and Ford want to maintain pricing even if they lose some ground in the marketplace.
It's a gamble, but one they embrace as they look first to boost their stock price. If all goes well, the companies will continue to strengthen their pricing and maintain profits to offset the economic crisis in Europe.
If it turns south, however, the companies could lose more market share and face temptation to jack up rebates and offer discounted financing to move the metal.
GM and Ford's resolve to stick to their plans will be tested through the summer.
As CEO Dan Akerson told analysts immediately after GM reported a $1-billion. first-quarter profit, "It's difficult to remain as disciplined as we have been when you look at some of the activity of our competitors."
It's not just Volkswagen and the Japanese nipping at their market share.
Through April, Chrysler's market share rose from 9.6 percent a year earlier to 11.6 percent. In 2009, when its share was 8.9 percent, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne set a U.S. market-share goal of about 13% in 2014.
Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois said the new Dodge Dart, Chrysler's first compact car since the Neon, and continued strength from the Chrysler 200 and 300, Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee should sustain the momentum.
GM and Ford have no choice but to relinquish some market share as they hit production plateaus and the smaller car companies grow.
At Ford, stronger-than-expected sales are straining the company's planned production capacity for this year, sales analyst Erich Merkle said. After U.S. auto sales dropped from 16.1 million in 2007 to 10.4 million in 2009, analysts predicted a slow recovery. Most forecasts call for total sales of between 14 million and 15 million this year.
"To meet that demand, it's going to require additional (production) capacity," Merkle said. "Capacity isn't a flip of the switch."
To increase production, Ford has shortened its summer shutdowns at 13 plants and is adding jobs in Wayne; Kansas City, Mo.; Chicago and Louisville, Ky., where the automaker is launching the new Escape. Still, executives at the Dearborn company have spoken openly that they expect to hold a smaller piece of the pie this year.
GM is adding jobs to support a barrage of new products such as the Cadillac ATS, Chevy Malibu and Impala. Until those models hit showrooms, GM's market share, which slipped to 17.7 percent through the first four months of this year from 19.6 percent in the year-earlier period, will remain under pressure.
GM executives are pointing to the increased profitability of each sale, as the automaker sells more of its vehicles at or near their sticker prices and it continues to reduce the portion of sales that go to rental companies and corporate fleets.
This month, Akerson told analysts that the new Chevrolet Sonic is selling at an average price of about $1,000 higher than competitors such as the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Accent.
GM gained share last year as Toyota and Honda output was crippled by the earthquake and tsunami in their home country. Now at full strength, Toyota and Honda are taking back sales because they have enough inventory to meet demand.
Toyota's sales are expected to skyrocket in the coming months compared with their poor performances in the late spring and summer of 2011.
Another automaker finding itself in a similar situation, after years of growth, is Hyundai. After expanding from 2.9 percent of total U.S. sales in 2007 to 5.1 percent in 2011, the South Korean automaker can't make enough vehicles to sustain that growth rate, said John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America.
Last year, in a slower sales environment, "we literally could not have made another car," he said. The automaker is adding a third shift in September at its Alabama factory.
The Volkswagen brand, which boosted its U.S. market share to 2.8 percent for the first four months of 2012 from 2.3% in the year-earlier period, wants to capture 6 percent by 2018.
Nissan's plan to build 10 percent of all cars purchased in the U.S. this year -- now has a better shot at becoming attainable. Its 2012 market share through April was 8.5 percent.
Volkswagen is pushing its new Passat. Nissan is preparing to launch a new Altima.
But for the rest of their lineup, both companies are willing to use incentives to boost sales. Volkswagen spent an average of $2,232 on incentives for each vehicle sold in April, up 23 percent from a year earlier, according to Autodata. Nissan's incentive cost per vehicle jumped 19 percent in the same period.
Not everyone can grow. If you add up each company's stated market-share goal, it comes to 130%, Edmunds.com Vice Chairman Jeremy Anwyl said.
"Right now, things are in a state of flux, so you can make a move," said George Magliano, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "It depends upon the incentives you put out there, the products you put out there."
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