Stan Bell, a 61-year-old retired government worker from Clinton, Mich., is an example of why Honda may widen its stock-market lead over...

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Stan Bell, a 61-year-old retired government worker from Clinton, Mich., is an example of why Honda may widen its stock-market lead over Toyota.

After wrecking his Accord sedan, Bell returned to the dealer to replace it with a Civic EX, Honda’s most fuel-efficient gasoline vehicle.

“With this economy, people have to be careful with pennies,” he said. Bell had to pay the sticker price of about $22,000 and wait a few days for the dealer to take delivery of the 36-miles-per-gallon car.

With the average U.S. price of regular gasoline up 39 percent in a year — to $4.10 a gallon, according to the AAA motor club — Honda’s flexible North American factories have been running at full tilt. Japan’s second-biggest automaker is shifting production from trucks to automobiles to keep up with surging demand for fuel-efficient vehicles, while larger Toyota is closing its San Antonio plant for 14 days between now and the end of October to reduce output of Tundra pickups.

Toyota’s pickups, unlike Honda’s, don’t share basic design structures with its cars. It might take Toyota a year or more to convert the truck plant to auto production, said Michael Robinet, an analyst with automotive consulting firm CSM Worldwide in Northville, Mich. Toyota spokesman Hideaki Homma said the timing differs according to the type of model.

Honda’s assembly lines can switch models in as little as 10 days, spokesman Sakae Uruma said. That lets the Tokyo-based company build fewer 20-mpg Ridgeline trucks in favor of Civic compacts. Honda will move production of the Ridgeline truck to its Alabama factory in early 2009 from its Ontario assembly plant, which will allow it to build more Civics in Canada, the carmaker said in March.

Nimbleness and a longtime focus on small cars have made Honda the only one among the six biggest automakers in the U.S. to increase production in North America this year, according to data from each company.

Madelynn Matlock, who runs an international-equity fund within Huntington National Bank’s $3.7 billion investment portfolio, is among investors boosting bets on Honda. She raised her stake in the company, the only automaker she holds, to 152,000 shares in late 2007.

Honda “plants are so flexible, so capable of switching products to meet changes in the market,” said Matlock, who is based in Cincinnati. “Toyota has over-expanded. It was too focused on volume gains, on beating GM.”

Honda has fallen 3.7 percent in Tokyo trading since the end of December, though it has recovered from a three-year low in March. Toyota has slumped 17 percent in 2008.

Purchases by customers such as Mark Rother, 45, in Tujunga, Calif., helped Honda pass Chrysler in U.S. sales in May and June to become the country’s fourth-largest auto marketer. It’s the only one among the top five car companies, including General Motors and Toyota, to post 2008 U.S. sales gains.

Rother traded in a 2000 Chrysler Dodge Caravan SE minivan last month for a 2008 Honda Fit Sport hatchback that gets up to 33 mpg. While his old vehicle’s quality and operating costs played a role in the trade, the rise in gasoline prices was “50 percent of the reason we wanted to get a smaller car,” he said.