DETROIT – Even as domestic auto makers work to catch up in U.S. market share, foreign transplants are steadily fattening their coffers by selling more imported vehicles here.

Foreign car companies in the year’s first eight months gained a solid 3.0% market

Collectively, the transplants sold 4.7% more imported vehicles, totaling an additional 105,076 units, in the 8-month period than year-ago, while deliveries of their North American-built products gained a mere 2.6%, or 73,955 units, over like-2006.

Conversely, import sales for Detroit’s Big Three made up only 3.5% of their total deliveries through August, compared with a combined 45.2% for foreign rivals.

While most foreign auto makers that sell in the U.S. also build vehicles in North America, their market share is padded by import models from car companies that do not build here, such as Kia Motors America Inc. and Porsche Cars North America Inc.

Kia, which plans to start U.S. production at a greenfield plant in Georgia in 2009, enjoyed a 5.0% growth rate in the year’s first eight months based on import sales, alone, according to Ward’s data.

While Volkswagen of America Inc., which builds cars in Mexico, has seen negligible sales growth in the U.S. this year, its total deliveries have shifted toward imports, which through August accounted for 59.5% of its U.S. sales, up from 54.2% in 2006.

U.S. Import Sales (in thousands)
8 Mos. YTD 2006 8 Mos. YTD 2007 % Increase
BMW 179.4 194.8 8.6
Fuji 60.1 59.3 -1.2
Honda 225.3 245.6 9.0
Hyundai 190.3 169.9 -10.7
Isuzu 2.3 2.0 -10.7
Kia Motors 198.1 208.0 5.0
Mazda 116.0 153.3 32.1
Mercedes 116.3 111.9 -3.7
Mitsubishi 22.3 42.1 88.9
Nissan 146.1 147.4 0.9
Porsche 24.2 23.6 -2.3
Suzuki 73.4 57.6 -21.6
Toyota 788.4 820.1 4.0
Volkswagen 117.3 128.9 9.9
Total 2259.4 2364.5 4.7

Deliveries of VW’s Mexican-built vehicles fell 11.7% through August, compared with year-ago, as sales of imports rose 9.9%.

Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc. saw a dramatic 88.9% hike in import sales through August, driving its import revenue to 44.9% of total U.S. sales, compared with prior-year’s 27.9%. Sales of locally built vehicles slid 10.3% in the period.

Mazda North American Operations experienced a significant 32.1% jump in import sales in the U.S. through August, while sales of its North American-built vehicles tumbled 31.4%. The shift increased the auto maker’s import portion of its sales to 75.4%, compared with 61.4% in like-2006.

American Honda Motor Co. Inc.’s U.S.-built deliveries were relatively flat in the first eight months, but import sales gained 9.0%, accounting for 23.0% of total deliveries in the period, compared with prior-year’s 21.6%.

BMW of North America LLC’s import sales in the U.S. jumped 8.6% through August, for 87.2% of deliveries, up from year-ago’s 86.8%.

In a reversal of fortune, import sales for Hyundai Motor America Inc., Isuzu Motors America Inc., Mercedes-Benz USA and American Suzuki Motor Corp. all fell below prior-year. With the exception of Isuzu, imports have become a smaller portion of overall sales for these auto makers.

Although Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and Nissan North America Inc. continue to increase import sales, they are the only two foreign transplants whose portion of import sales is decreasing as their U.S.-built vehicle deliveries rise.

Toyota’s import sales dropped from 46.2% to 45.8% of its total deliveries through August, while Nissan’s import sales slipped from 21.2% to 20.5% in the period.

Although Ward’s is calling for General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC’s overall combined market share in September to hit 53.3%, up from August’s 51.2%, the playing field will continue to grow less even as foreign brands, such as China-built vehicles, begin to compete for their piece of the U.S. import market.