Japanese carmakers are looking forward to big US sales gains after introducing a slew of new vehicles at the Detroit auto show, but will face stiff competition from a resurgent Detroit and ambitious Koreans and Germans.
Toyota and Honda saw sales tumble in 2011 after supplies were shattered by the devastating March earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster in Japan.
It came at a particularly bad time for Toyota, which was finally recovering from a reputation-shattering series of mass safety recalls.
The supply shortages also provided an opportunity for Ford, General Motors and Chrysler to capture new customers after years of painful restructuring resulted in radical revamps of their product offerings.
"The problem for Toyota and Honda is that some of their market share losses are potentially permanent losses because the competition is so much better," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with TrueCar.com.
"Consumers who would have bought a Toyota or Honda ended up getting something else and realized these cars are as good or better."
Asian automakers dethroned the Detroit Three in 2009 as the biggest sellers in the US market as overall industry sales tumbled amidst a deep economic downturn that pushed GM and Chrysler into a government-backed bankruptcy.
That trend reversed in 2011, when losses at Toyota and Honda pushed the Asian share down to 43.7 percent while US carmakers captured 46.9 percent, according to Autodata.
With total industry sales forecast to grow to 13.5 million vehicles in 2012 after posting a 10 percent gain to 12.8 million last year, there should be plenty of new customers to go around.
"We're extremely bullish on the market and how we're going to perform in it," said Bob Carter, who heads the Toyota division of the group's US sales team.
Toyota is launching 19 new products this year across its four brands: Toyota, Lexus, Scion and Prius.
"It is a very competitive market without a doubt. There's good products coming from numerous auto makers," Carter told AFP on the sidelines of the show.
"We've always had and continue to have a leadership in terms of the safety, reliability and durability.
What you're starting to see is a new styling direction coming in."
That fresh, sexy styling was on display when Lexus unveiled a prototype of its new hybrid sports car the LF-LC coupe Monday.
Lexus -- which introduces nine new products this year -- will handily recapture the coveted luxury crown that it lost last year after being overtaken by BMW and Mercedes after 11 years of dominance, said Lexus general manager Mark Templin.
"Our base plan -- which we expect to exceed by a wide margin -- is 240,000 units which is 21 percent growth" in 2012, Templin told reporters.
Honda, which was hit by mass flooding at factories in Thailand just as its production was getting back on line, also has ambitious goals.
"This year, 2012 is really the year that we'll be able to show how Honda is competitive in the market place," American Honda president Tetsuo Iwamura said on the sidelines of the Detroit show.
Hondea expects to boost US sales by 25 percent in 2012, after posting a 7.1 percent loss in 2011, Iwamura said. Its sales target includes 1.25 million Hondas and 180,000 luxury Acura vehicles.
Honda introduced three Acura prototypes at the Detroit show Monday which represent the automaker's focus on "timeless beauty" and sportier styling.
"For Acura, we would consider it an immediate success if we achieve 180,000 sales this year," Iwamura said prior to the unveiling.
"Of course we are much more ambitious for the future."
Nissan, whose suppliers were not badly hit by the Japanese disaster, posted a 14 percent jump in US sales to 1.04 million vehicles in 2011.
Its US market share rose 0.4 points to 8.2 percent, edging up against Honda, which holds 5th place in the crowded US market with a nine percent share.
"For the first time we have no handicap," compare to Toyota and Honda," Nissan-Renault chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn said.
Nissan's former financial troubles are long over and it has a full lineup of vehicles across its global product offerings. It's also the number one Japanese brand in China, which is the number one market in the world, Ghosn said.
"2011 wasn't a bad year for us," he said during a press conference at the Detroit auto show.
"The company is moving in the right direction," he said.
"We did not lose market share in one market in which we compete. In 2012, this is going to grow again."