Fewer cars on dealer forecourts and higher prices – factors that led to disappointing US sales in May – look also to hold June results [due out late on Friday BST] in check, a media report said.

Sales are expected to rise only 2% from May, but 8% year on year, a month after tighter inventory caused by Japan’s earthquake and a spike in vehicle prices led more consumers than expected to hold off on buying cars, industry analysts and economists told Reuters.

“Light-vehicle sales ticked up only slightly in June as many potential buyers continued to defer their purchase amid high car prices and limited inventories,” Barclays Capital analyst Brian Johnson said in a research note.

“Despite some indication last month that Japanese (automakers) were ready to cut prices as post-quake production resumed, pricing has remained strong in June, likely leading many buyers to defer purchases,” he added.

Toyota and Honda sales fell in June from a year ago as the 11 March earthquake and its aftermath was still being felt, analysts said.

Incentives fell slightly for the industry again in June, raising fears of a repeat of May when lower incentives may have played a role in disappointing sales results for General Motors and Ford.

The average forecast of 41 economists surveyed by Reuters was 12m vehicles SAAR, up from 11.1m last year and 11.8m in May.

That is below an average of 13.1m new light vehicles sold SAAR in the first four months of the year before the impact of the Japan earthquake significantly affected sales.

While some economists, including Peter Morici at the University of Maryland, see signs that a second recession may be “in the wings,” Ford sees a double-dip recession as “extremely unlikely,” Ford sales analyst George Pipas told Reuters.

Inventory of new vehicles is tight, particularly for small cars, which has allowed automakers to lower consumer incentives in the past several months. In May, incentives offered by Toyota and Honda fell drastically from April, a strategy many analysts said backfired.

Jesse Toprak of TrueCar.com told the news agency Japanese automakers “offered generous incentives to keep from losing loyal customers” in June.

The average sales incentives offered in June by Toyota, Honda and Nissan Motor rose from May by 9.3%, 4.5% and 7.8%, respectively, according to TrueCar.

The average incentive was down 0.2% for the industry in June as the US automakers cut their offers by a range of 1.9% to 2.4% and Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co cut its offers by 3.6%, TrueCar said.

Edmunds told Reuters it expects Honda sales of new vehicles in June to show a drop of 17% from a year ago, and for Toyota sales to slide 14.5%.

Edmunds forecast that June sales will rise 17% for General Motors, 11% for Ford and 26% for Chrysler.

Hyundai is expected to show double-digit gains for June sales.

Nissan has been the least affected of the Japanese automakers from the March earthquake, Edmunds said. It forecast Nissan sales will show a 25% rise in June from a year ago.

In May, Toyota sales fell 33%, Honda sales were down 23% and fellow Japanese automaker Nissan experienced a 9% sales decline.

New vehicle sales in the second half of the year will rise as consumers begin to replace old cars and trucks, Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, told Reuters.

Also helping boost sales will be lower petrol prices and a wider availability of consumer credit, Taylor said.

“The drop in gasoline prices will help avoid a summer run on small cars and hybrids, both in short supply in the current market, as well as lead to increased sales of larger cars and light trucks,” Taylor said.

Ford’s Pipas said industry sales will remain relatively weak in July and not rebound to more than 13m vehicles sold until August at the earliest. He did not offer a forecast on July sales.

Reuters noted that full-year forecasts by analysts are generally in the 13m range which pales compared with the 10-year average of almost 17m vehicles sold per year prior to 2008 when the recession hit.

Edmunds.com economist Lacey Plache said that prices and inventory levels will return to normal by September from which sales lost by deferred consumer purchase decisions will be made up.

Falling petrol prices helped boost full-sized pickup truck sales, Toprak said, and Taylor said commercial sales of pickup trucks are rising in part because businesses need to replace worn-out work trucks.

US average petrol prices were US$3.54 per gallon on Wednesday, down about 40 cents since early May, Reuters noted.