GAS, QUAKE WOES
Gasoline prices, meanwhile, have jumped 90 cents over the past year to $3.66 in St. Louis, according to the AAA Auto Club of Missouri. That stems from increased demand in a recovering world economy, topped off by nervousness over revolutions in the Middle East.
Pricey gas is sparking renewed demand for smaller, fuel-efficient cars. The Japanese earthquake is adding to the nervousness, analysts say. The speculation among used car dealers goes like this: The Japanese make many fuel-efficient cars, and if their production declines, more buyers will look to used models.
The cost of a used Toyota Prius hybrid jumped 40 percent at auto auctions over the past year -- and 15 percent in the last month.
Meanwhile, the disaster in Japan is starting to slow auto production, and not just in Japan. Japanese plants in the U.S. depend on Japanese-made parts. So do the Big Three American automakers, although to a much lesser extent.
"All those parts on ships are in the process of being delivered. But there are no more ships behind them," said Mike Wall, analyst at IHS Global Insight. Parts shortages will grow worse this month and in May, he said.
The supply disruptions arrived as U.S. auto sales were already staging a nice recovery, with sales up 17 percent in March. General Motors was reducing sales incentives before the quake struck, said Wall. He and other analysts expect that other automakers will do the same.
The result would be less bargaining power for consumers, who will end up paying more.
"As automakers look at fewer vehicles in their supply chain, they're going to look at their incentives and say, 'This doesn't make sense,'" said Wall.
Good deals are already disappearing among new fuel-efficient models, according to the car-shopping service CarWoo.com. Based on 15,000 transactions since January, CarWoo reports sharp increases in the price new car dealers are offering on the most fuel-efficient cars, such as the Prius, the Civic Hybrid, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Elantra and Chevy Cruze Eco.
In January, those cars were selling 12 to 14 percent below sticker price. After the gas price spike, most are going for 1 or 2 percent below sticker, and the Prius sometimes sells above sticker, says CarWoo vice president Myril Shaw.
An exception is the Ford Fiesta, which is still going for a discount.
"Ford is trying to win market share, because they can," says Shaw.
Honda cut production at its U.S. and Canadian plants by 50 percent through mid April at least, according to the trade journal Automotive News. Honda also suspended dealer orders for the Japanese-made Fit and Civic Hybrid. Mazda suspended orders for certain Japanese-made models, such as the Mazda3 and the CX-7.
Toyota predicted that it will have to temporarily shut its American plants. In Japan, Toyota plans to resume production at half capacity for nine days later this month before halting again.
American makers are feeling milder effects. Chrysler restricted overtime at some plants to preserve parts. Ford idled a truck plant in Louisville for a week. GM halted, and later resumed, production at a Louisiana truck plant.
Analysts aren't sure how long the disruptions will last, but most bet it will take about three months for the Japanese to regain normal production, and electricity shortages may hinder manufacturing even then.
In St. Louis, auto dealers say they've seen no shortage of new cars so far, but they're worried about the future.
"They're good to go for the next little bit," said Cloyd Barden, sales manager at Lou Fusz Toyota in Kirkwood.
How about in future months?
"Nobody's talking about it," he said.
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