Cars That Could Rally While Japan Digs Out

Detroit will be a big winner if Japanese cars run short.

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2011 Chevy Equinox
When General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy in 2009, it was obviously bad news for them—but a boost for competitors, who picked up market share as car buyers fled the two damaged brands.

[In Pictures: 20 Cars That Could Rally While Japan Digs Out.]

The American carmarkers now have a chance to gain back a bit of that turf. The devastating earthquake in Japan was obviously an act of nature—not a man-made debacle, like the mismanagement of the two American automakers was—but it has left Japanese automakers reeling all the same. A few assembly plants were damaged, while others are operating fitfully on account of power rationing. Perhaps most pernicious is the damage done to several parts manufacturers in the quake zone that supply paint, electronics, and other key components for many Japanese cars—and some American ones as well.

For most models, there's typically at least two months' inventory in the pipeline, which is why there have been no shortages so far. But as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and other Japanese automakers gauge the damage, they've begun to ration parts, slow production, and take other measures to adjust. For the most popular cars or those already low on supply, that could lead to shortages of some models in coming weeks, or price increases as dealers and customers anticipate shortages.

Many Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti models could be affected, since a lot of those were in relatively short supply to start with. At Toyota, slowdowns could affect supplies of the Prius hybrid, Corolla compact, RAV4 crossover, and possibly the larger Highlander crossover. Honda could run short of the Insight and CR-Z hybrids, the Fit subcompact, and possibly the CR-V crossover. Disruptions at Nissan could affect the Rogue crossover and 370Z sports car. Many models produced by Mazda, Subaru, Suzuki, and Mitsubishi will also be affected, and shortages could affect more models the longer they drag on.

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Competitors won't gloat, and they may not even try to take advantage of Japan's woes. But they won't turn down buyers who can't find a competing Japanese model, either. To determine which models could benefit if the Japanese problems persist, I asked car-shopping site Edumunds.com to identify competing vehicles buyers tend to "cross-shop" when they're primarily interested in one of the quake-curtailed Japanese models. Here are 20 models that stand to benefit from Japanese supply problems:

Audi A5. This stylish German coupe competes with Japanese mid-luxury makes like the Lexus E Class and the Infiniti G. It's not the fastest two-seater, but with gas prices on everybody's mind, decent mileage gives it a bump.

BMW 3 series. Some arrivistes shun the predictable panache of a BMW, yet the 3 series remains a standard-setter—and an easy backup choice for anybody unable to find the Lexus, Acura, or Infiniti they want.

Buick LaCrosse. GM's near-luxury division has made a nifty comeback, and many reviewers rate the LaCrosse sedan above competing imports that cost more. It's another model that could draw buyers from Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti.

Chevrolet Cruze. Chevy has finally built a compact that appeals on quality, not price, which gives the Cruze a chance to snatch sales from the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and even the sporty Mazda3.

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Chevrolet Camaro. It's a muscle car, not a luxemobile, but Edmunds' data shows that the Camaro is one of the top three alternatives considered by buyers checking out the Infiniti G class coupe. GM would welcome the chance to convert a few import buyers.

Chevrolet Equinox. GM's solid crossover is the top-ranked model on U.S.News's list of affordable compact SUVs. Skeptics who remain devoted to the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-Vm or Subaru Forester may now have a reason to check it out. (The GMC Terrain is nearly identical.)

Chevrolet Traverse. This popular, seven-passenger crossover (similar to the GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave) debuted in 2008 and is starting to seem a bit dated. But a shortage of competing models like the Toyota Highlander or Mazda CX-9 could give it a second wind.

Ford Edge. This crossover is one of Ford's older models, although Ford has freshened it with new electronics, including its Sync hands-free system. That could pay off if fans of the Highlander or Nissan Murano can't find what they want, and head for a Ford dealership.

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Ford Explorer. Ford moved away from trucky underpinnings when it redesigned the new Explorer, producing a smooth-riding winner that's the top vehicle in its class in the U.S.News rankings. Toyota in particular could lose some customers if the Highlander becomes scarce.

Ford Fiesta. This subcompact has been another hit for Ford, garnering another No. 1 ranking in the U.S.News rankings. Among Edmunds' shoppers, it's the top alternative to the Honda Fit, and a tough competitor to the Nissan Juke and Toyota Corolla.

Ford Focus. This newly redesigned compact is meant to one-up the reliable but bland Corolla and Civic with crisp European handling, MPG in the mid-30s, and trendy electronic options. If the competition runs short, the Focus might do just that.

Ford Fusion hybrid. It's more luxurious and expensive than the Prius hybrid, but it's also one of the top alternatives considered by Prius shopper on Edmunds. If Japanese hybrids dry up, the Fusion is one of the few choices left. The Fusion hybrid may also depend on some scarce Japanese parts, however, so buyers should keep an eye on availability.

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Hyundai Genesis. This upscale Korean-made coupe and sedan have already been making nice gains against the Japanese luxury brands, offering more luxury for less cash. With Hyundai hot, that trend could intensify.

Hyundai Elantra. This newly redesigned compact aims to nibble away market share from the Corolla and Civic. Hyundai might get a bigger mouthful than it expected.

Hyundai Sonata. The Korean automaker hit a home run with this nimble, affordable sedan that gets the best mileage in its class. It's aimed squarely at the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima, which are all built in the United States but depend upon parts shipped from Japan that could run scarce. (The Sonata is also similar to the Kia Optima.)

Jeep Compass. It's not as rugged as you'd expect for a Jeep, but the Compass shows up as one alternative considered by shoppers interested in the Juke and Rogue. Improving performance by parent company Chrysler may make buyers more confident in the company's offerings.

Kia Sorento. This Korean model earns good reviews and has an optional third-row seat, which is rare for mid-sized crossovers. That makes it a strong competitor to the Highlander and RAV4, along with the smaller Rogue.

Kia Sportage. This smallish crossover competes with the Juke, Rogue, RAV4, Subaru Forester, and other Japanese models, often undercutting them on price.

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Mini Cooper. It hasn't been significantly updated in years, but the modish Mini Cooper still offers a jazzy ride and great mileage, making it an able alternative to the newer Juke, Rogue, and Fit.

Volkswagen Jetta. Critics have dissed its dull styling, but the Jetta remains a good value with mileage and features comparable to the Insight, Corolla, and Subaru Impreza. But any sales gains will be a gift the Japanese come to reclaim once the earthquake damage is repaired.

Twitter: @rickjnewman