"The days of our spending like drunken sailors will come to an end, and in American households, already have," Pipas said. "We are moving to smaller, more thoughtful consumption — sustainable consumption."
Compact car sales generally go up when gas prices spike and fall when they drop. But each time they drop, the sales base settles at a higher level than in previous quarters.
To attract a broader array of buyers, new vehicles such as the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Chevy Cruze offer crisp, contemporary styling, well-appointed interiors and European-style platforms.
Although new competitors like the Focus and Cruze have base prices that are higher than those of the Corolla and Civic, they are often better equipped, with six-speed automatics, direct fuel injection and turbochargers.
"The reason Honda and Toyota had success is they had good value," said Thomas Quintana, chief operating officer of Q Chevrolet in Irving, Texas. "Now so does the Cruze."
Quintana, whose dealership has less than a 45-day supply of Cruzes, said he would double his inventory if he could get the cars.
Dealers say Cruze and Focus sales also benefit from extraordinarily high used-car prices. Rather than spend $20,000 on a used car with 30,000 miles on it, some consumers buy a well-equipped Cruze or Focus instead.
The Cruze is "our No. 1 car, outselling the Camaro," said Ray Huffines, chief executive of Plano, Texas-based Huffines Auto Dealerships, which includes Chevrolet stores in Plano and Lewisville.
"I think there is a progression downward with buyers," Huffines said. "We wish we could get more Cruzes to go with it."
The higher level of competition in the segment didn't surprise Toyota or Honda, said Dane Minor, general manager of Freeman Toyota in Hurst, Texas, and Freeman Honda in Dallas.
"We knew our competitors would get into this segment," Minor said. "And they are definitely building better products — and have to. But Toyota and Honda have the experience in this segment, and they have an advantage, I think."