Global forces push, pull at auto dealers

LOS ANGELES – Rising gas prices have reignited sales of the fuel-sipping Prius hybrid, and dealers are getting more money for the Toyota sedan. There’s just one problem – they are starting to run out of cars.
Some don’t have any in their showrooms for shoppers to drive home. Others say their stock is dwindling quickly.
Continuing disruptions caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan are rippling across the globe. Toyota Motor Corp. restarted the Prius factory early last week but closed it down again Wednesday to reassess its part supply. The world’s largest automaker resumed Prius production Thursday, but it is not expected to run anywhere near full speed.
Elsewhere, Honda Motor Co. is periodically shutting down its U.S. factories to conserve its supply of auto components. Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. is slowing production of Subaru brand cars at its Lafayette, Ind., plant because of component shortages. And Toyota has told repair shops that it’s going to ration more than 200 spare parts that are in short supply.
Research firm IHS Automotive said production and part supply issues could affect as much as a third of the global auto industry over the next several months.
“This may ultimately rank as the largest peacetime disruption of world auto production,” said James Rubenstein, an auto industry analyst and geography professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
The combination of rising gasoline prices and consumers worrying they won’t be able to get their car of choice is prompting some to start shopping now.
The bottleneck in Prius inventory has dealers nervous. Many report they have less than a two-week inventory.
“It is a dwindling supply and getting worse,” said Dianne Whitmire, fleet director at Los Angeles-area dealer Carson Toyota.
Prius sales should be brisk this weekend, putting an extra crimp in supply, said Billy Rinker, general sales manager at Toyota Santa Monica, one of the nation’s largest hybrid sellers.
That’s because a $500 rebate on the car and other financing and lease specials put in place prior to the Japan crisis are set to run through Monday, and it’s unlikely the automaker will renew them amid supply problems, Rinker said.
“For the next month I think we will have real slim pickings,” he said.

Jerry Hirsch/Los Angeles Times