DETROIT — Toyota should have owned the road this summer. When gas prices go up, American drivers go for smaller, fuel-efficient cars. The last time prices at the pump spiked in 2008, Toyota captured the title of world's No. 1 automaker — and has held it ever since.
Now gas costs almost $4 a gallon again, but Toyota is struggling. It's been hammered by supply disruptions from the Japan earthquake and can't escape the stigma from its safety-related recalls last year. And its rivals are making flashier cars with great gas mileage.
Toyota said Wednesday that its quarterly profit fell more than 75 percent, mostly because of production problems from the March 11 quake and tsunami. The automaker's CEO, Akio Toyoda, said executives are "gritting our teeth" to keep jobs in Japan.
In the United States, Toyota is losing market share faster than any of its competitors, falling to 14 percent from 17 percent in a little more than a year. North America is Toyota's largest market.
Meanwhile, Ford, Nissan, Kia and Hyundai have all introduced sexier, more chiseled designs. General Motors and Chrysler, out of bankruptcy and healthier than they have been in years, are gaining market share, too.
By its own admission, Toyota lost sight of quality in its pursuit of global sales. Analysts expect GM to retake the world sales title this year.
"They lost their way," said Aaron Bragman, an analyst with the consulting firm IHS Automotive. "They wanted to be GM. But they lost what made them a valued brand and a valued company."
For decades, Toyota's strength was reliability. Other cars may have been flashier or cheaper, but Toyotas were high-quality and retained their value. Then Toyota recalled 14 million cars and trucks last year because of faulty gas pedals and other problems.
In a J.D. Power and Associates study of vehicle quality, it slipped to sixth place in 2010 from third place in 2009. The study measures problems experienced by the original owners of vehicles after three years.
It has moved up one slot this year, to fifth, but drivers are willing to try other brands.
"You're getting acceptable levels of quality, reliability and dependability from pretty much every manufacturer," said Jack Nerad, editorial director of Kelley Blue Book. "That takes a big arrow out of Toyota's quiver."
Toyotas are also not holding their resale value as well as they did before the recalls. For the 2011 model year, Kelley Blue Book predicts that all Toyota brands will be worth an average of 39 percent of their purchase price after five years. In the 2009 model year, Toyotas were expected to hold 47 percent of their value after five years.
Eric Ibara, KBB's director of residual value consulting, said Toyota could see a short-term gain in values for 2011 models because of earthquake-related shortages, which would push up prices for its used cars. Ibara said such gains would only be temporary, until Toyota is running its factories at full capacity again.
John Murphy, an autos analyst for Merrill Lynch, estimated Toyota will recover only some of the lost market share, probably rising to just over 15 percent, by 2014. IHS predicts it will be around 14 percent as late as 2017 — the equivalent of 300,000 fewer cars a year than Toyota sold at its peak.
"The road ahead is much more difficult than it has ever been for them," said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates.
As competitors have introduced sharper designs, Toyota's have started to look stale. When Toyota unveiled a refreshed 2011 Corolla at the Los Angeles Auto Show last fall, attendees joked that it was difficult to tell the difference from the 2010 version without looking at the window stickers.
Toyota executives have long acknowledged that their cars are bland but say that's partly why they sell so well, appealing to a wide variety of people. Toyota's U.S. sales chief, Bob Carter, also says that one reason Toyotas seem so familiar to people is that they see so many on the road.
Toyoda, the CEO, is pressing his designers to make Toyota's styling more exciting. In a speech two days before the earthquake outlining a turnaround at Toyota, the chief said he would streamline corporate bureaucracy and give more power to global regions instead of insisting that all decisions be made in Japan.
While Toyota has relied on its reputation, its rivals have become more aggressive about style and fuel economy. Hyundai's Sonata, which came out last spring, costs $500 less than Toyota's Camry but has a sportier design, more power and better fuel economy, at 35 mpg on the highway.
Alexander Edwards, who heads the automotive division of the marketing firm Strategic Vision, said that in a recent survey of 300,000 new car owners, the Sonata got the highest scores for perceived value and quality that his firm has ever seen. The Camry scored last out of 22 models.
Meanwhile, Chevrolet has moved up the release of the 2012 Malibu, another Camry competitor, to early next year, and it will offer a 35-mpg version, upgraded technology and a more plush interior.
The Camry — which has been the best-selling car in the U.S. for more than a decade — will also be redesigned for the 2012 model year. But Toyota hasn't hinted at what it will look like or when it will hit showrooms. Bragman wonders whether Toyota is frantically reworking it after seeing the competition. Toyota spokesman Mike Michels says the redesign is on track.
Toyota's compact Corolla is in an even tougher spot. Its redesign is still 18 months away. Meanwhile, it is facing competition from newer compact cars like the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra, which hit the market just has gas prices started their steady climb. Elantra sales jumped 88 percent in the first four months of this year, while Corolla sales rose just 10 percent.
While the Corolla also remains a top seller in the U.S., other cars are gaining on it. The Civic and Cruze outsold it in April. Honda sold almost 27,000 Civics, while the Cruze topped 25,000 and Corolla was just above 24,000.
Toyota's problems are magnified by the earthquake. Toyota makes many of its small cars in Japan, Schuster said, so cars that should have sold better because of high gas prices will soon be in short supply.
Bob Carter, general manager of the Toyota division in the U.S., insists that once Toyota redesigns the Corolla and Camry, sales will go back up. But he didn't answer when an Associated Press reporter asked if Toyota could regain all the share it's lost since 2009.
"We're not in the business to chase market share. We're in the business to meet consumer demand," he said during a recent automotive conference in New York.
Toyota has tried to capture younger buyers with its Scion brand, but the results have been mixed. Through April, sales of the tC sedan have more than doubled compared with the same period last year. But after nine years in the market, Scion represents less than 3 percent of Toyota's U.S. sales.
Older luxury buyers have been shopping elsewhere, too. Toyota's Lexus brand was overtaken by Mercedes-Benz in the first quarter as the top high-end line in the U.S.
Toyota still has the best hybrid technology, said Gabriel Shenhar, program manager at Consumer Reports' auto test facility. It will have an all-electric RAV4 on the market next year to compete with the Nissan Leaf.
Schuster said Toyota is like an injured star quarterback who is replaced by an alternate who turns out to be just as good.