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updated 11/9/2011 7:26:56 AM ET 2011-11-09T12:26:56

New car sales in October recovered from a summertime lull, fueled by pent-up demand for new models and a better selection of Japanese brand cars following last spring’s devastating earthquake. If the rebound continues, car makers will finish the year with their best sales since 2008.

Unlike in previous years, however, when import-brand vehicles dominated the list of best-selling cars in America, this year has seen a surge in popularity for domestic models. Six of the 10 most popular vehicles in America through October are made by General Motors, Ford Motor or Chrysler Group, compared to just three last year.

Tumbling out of the Top 10 are the Honda Civic and CR-V, two perennial favorites whose sales have been hurt by natural disasters in Asia, and the Hyundai Sonata, which was nudged out by more popular vehicles from Ford and GM. Pushing their way into the Top 10 are the Ford Fusion and Escape, and GM’s new compact, the Chevrolet Cruze.

Forbes.com slideshow: Best-selling vehicles of 2011

There’s no doubt the Detroit car companies benefited from the woes of their Japanese rivals. Toyota has been reeling for nearly two years — first because of quality recalls and then because of parts shortages caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March. While Toyota was struggling, Honda seemed adrift, offering uninspiring vehicles that failed to capitalize on the market opportunity. Then, it too was forced to suspend North American production because of supply chain issues following the earthquake. The disaster struck just as Honda was launching a redesigned Civic. Now it’s getting ready to launch a new CR-V, but that could be delayed because of parts shortages caused by monsoons in Thailand.

Stepping into the void, of course, were GM, Ford and Chrysler, with fuel-efficient vehicles that had improved quality and more appealing styling and features. GM’s Chevy Cruze is a good example. It hit the market in late 2010 with a starting price of $16,525 and has turned into a barn-burner for GM, selling more than 202,000 so far this year. It features 10 air bags, stability control and traction control, and gets 38 mpg on the highway with its optional 1.4-liter turbo-charged Ecotec engine.

Sales of the Toyota Corolla, meanwhile, are down 11 percent so far this year. Toyota’s compact still outsells Cruze, but only by about 1,000 vehicles, and the Cruze could overtake Corolla by the end of the year to become the country’s best-selling compact car.

Likewise, the Ford Fusion mid-sized sedan and even the Escape utility vehicle, which is due for a makeover next year, have found a larger audience during the market turmoil.

The seasonally adjusted sales rate for October was 13.3 million vehicles, according to Autodata of Woodcliff Lake, N.J., with strong double-digit gains posted by Chrysler, Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Ford Motor and General Motors saw more modest gains (6 percent and 2 percent, respectively). Toyota Motor’s sales fell 8 percent, while Honda’s dipped 0.5 percent.

Ford’s F-series pickups (No.1), and GM’s Chevrolet Silverado (No.2) are America’s sales champs, as they have been for years. The best-selling passenger car remains the Toyota Camry, although sales of this aging model are off 8.5 percent so far this year because of earthquake-related disruptions. A redesigned 2012 Camry just went on sale, which could help Toyota get back on track.

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© 2012 Forbes.com


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