Chevrolet Malibu was the top selling American badged car in June, behind only the Toyota Camry

Chevrolet Malibu was the top selling American badged car in June, behind only the Toyota Camry

June brought a small but welcome uptick in US light vehicle sales with a better than predicted SAAR of 14.08m units and sales of nearly 1.29m cars and light trucks, a 22.1% improvement from June 2011.

The Japanese led the way: Toyota sales volume boomed 60.3% while Honda’s rose 48.8%. Mitsubishi was the only Japanese automaker to come up short of its 2011 figures. Combined market share for the Japanese manufacturers rose from 30% in June 2011 to 35% last month.

Hybrids were a key ingredient in Toyota’s gain. Sales of the Prius soared 341.2% in June; it’s now 14th on the top-selling nameplates list.

Japan’s gain was mostly Detroit’s loss. The combined share for Chrysler, Ford and General Motors dropped from 50.2% to 46.7% though all three reported sales that beat analyst estimates.

Chrysler reported its first sales of the new Dodge Dart. 202 copies of the new small car found homes in June; production is still ramping up at the Belvidere, Illinois plant.

Chrysler sales were up 20.3%, driven primarily by passenger car sales. Fiat also posted a healthy gain: year-to-date (YTD) sales of the little 500 are up 318.8% compared to June 2011.

Ford’s utilities were the key to its 7.0% improvement. Sales of the Explorer and restyled Flex both rose a healthy 34.5%.

Robust fleet sales helped General Motors to post growth more than twice as high as the average of analyst estimates. The Chevrolet Malibu was the top-selling American-badged car in June, coming in second only to the Toyota Camry. Crossover and SUV sales also made significant contributions as lower petrol prices encouraged buyers of even GM’s largest vehicles.

Heavy promotion helped drive Volt sales up 213.7% in June. YTD sales of the Chevy plug-in hybrid are now more than three times as high as they were for the first half of 2011.

Hyundai and Kia both reported better sales; Kia posted another monthly record. But the Koreans still lost market share to the Japanese boom, dropping nearly an entire point for the month.

Volkswagen sales continue to climb as the new Passat looks to hit 100,000 sales in its first year on the market. Audi posted an all-time monthly sales record in June.

Mercedes-Benz retained its lead in the premium segment, followed by BMW and Lexus. The Mercedes C-Class finished the month just 234 sales behind the perennial best-selling BMW 3-Series.

Mid-size cars are still the hot segment. Compact cars are strong, but sales of the smallest cars remain more a matter of manufacturer rather than size: some, like the Toyota Yaris and Scion line, did well in June; others, like the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic, were slower to leave dealer lots.

US petrol prices are lower than they were last year at this time, though escalating tensions in the Middle East could spark another run-up in oil prices, which could hurt vehicle sales. The US economic recovery is still sluggish and it won’t take much to upset it.