Robust February restores sales to the ‘old normal’ – for now

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By Jeremy Sinek

The year 2010 isn’t a leap year, but it didn’t need to be for auto sales to soar in February. Canadian auto shoppers propelled February sales up 24.9 per cent, from 80,000 last year to 100,000.

True, February ’08 saw 111,000 cars and light trucks sold, but that was an anomaly (and a leap year).

Held against long-term norms – February sales averaged 96,000 between 1999 and 2007 – this edition of February looks pretty good. And there was no change in the number of selling days.

February’s sales report also called to mind the old adage, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Detroit (up 29.9 per cent) actually lifted its sales faster than the offshore brands (21.1 per cent).

Only two automakers, Nissan Canada and Suzuki, leaked sales in February, though at least in the latter’s case it was off the base of a buck-the-trend “up” month last February.

Once again though, the Europeans (up 36.4 per cent) and Koreans (25.9 per cent) did most of the heavy lifting for the rest of the industry. Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Lexus and Hyundai were among these claiming new February records.

Japanese automaker sales rose 16.5 per cent. Among them, Toyota Canada failed to be held back by sticking accelerator pedals and reported (in an unusually subdued press release) a market-matching 25 per cent sales spike. And TCI’s 12,693 total wasn’t a million miles behind GM’s 13,846. Although 21 per cent up from last February, GM’s score still left it in third place overall, not far off Chrysler’s 13,970 but well adrift of Ford’s 17,910.

GM again singled out the performance of its core (surviving) brands that advanced its sales 69 per cent overall, and 98 per cent on the retail side. No Saabs and only one Saturn were sold in February, and Pontiac sales were winding down fast.

Ford’s industry-leading sales (both for the month and year-to-date) came off a 51-per cent sales spurt, with many nameplates setting new February records, including the big-selling F-Series (up 49 per cent).

Combined with Chrysler Canada’s 17.2-per cent push (based almost entirely on the sales of three core models – Caravan, Ram and Journey) the Detroit Three retrieved some market share, now 46.2 per cent compared with 45.5 percent this time last year.

Honda Canada advanced 26.6 per cent in February, but the Honda brand once again was outsold by Hyundai (up 23 per cent). Indeed, even including Acura, Honda Canada didn’t have much of a cushion over the Korean challenger.

The biggest gainer was Volkswagen Canada, up 57 per cent in total. New Golf sales nearly tripled while those of AJAC’s 2010 Car of the Year, Golf GTI, grew six-fold.

Canadians continued to gravitate to light trucks. Detroit’s car sales stagnated in February while its light-truck sales advanced 42 per cent; among the importers, cars and trucks grew 15 per cent and 33 per cent respectively. Overall, trucks now own 55.4 per cent of the market, up from 51.3 per cent this time last year.

And it’s not just the popularity of compact CUVs driving the trend. Through February, the top-three-selling nameplates are Ford F-Series (up 35 per cent), GM Silverado/Sierra (46 per cent) and Dodge Grand Caravan (31 per cent). Dodge Ram sales are up 81 per cent. Also in the Top 10 are the Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe (8th and 9th) while a second Hyundai (the compact Elantra) rounds out the chart.

Just outside is the 11th place Honda CR-V with a 50-per cent sales surge to date. In February alone, the Honda compact CUV actually placed ninth in overall sales, displacing the Santa Fe from the Top 10.

Among passenger cars the Mazda3 didn’t repeat its January drubbing of the Honda Civic, but the Mazda compact is still hanging in as the top-selling passenger car year-to-date. And here’s an interesting footnote: YTD, Toyota’s sales of the “is-it-a-bird-is-it-a-plane?” Venza crossover (2,016 YTD) outnumber those of any intermediate sedan (Ford Fusion – up 99 per cent in February – leads that category with 1,883 sales).