Call January import and light truck month

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By Jeremy Sinek

On the surface, Canadian auto sales in the opening month of 2014 were a non-story. The full count of 95,639 cars and light trucks was a mere 0.3 per cent higher than in a relatively robust January 2013.

But the numbers behind those numbers reveal some sharp trends as light trucks sucked sales away from passenger cars, and the offshore brands advanced at the expense of Detroit.

Indeed, a closer examination of the numbers almost seems to suggest that import trucks (up 22 per cent) ate the lunch of Detroit cars (down 20 per cent). But of course it’s not quite that simple, especially as Detroit truck sales also slipped – by 4.6 per cent.

Overall, truck sales advanced by 4.7 per cent while cars retreated 5.9 per cent; and Detroit’s sales dipped a combined 8.1 per cent while the imports jumped 8.5 per cent. For the second month in a row, trucks cornered 62 per cent of the total market – well above the long-term norm of around 55 per cent.

Some context, however: Last January, it was Detroit that outperformed the imports, and most of Detroit`s growth a year ago was on the car side. This year, the Detroit Three went in different directions. Chrysler advanced 3.9 per cent, but that wasn’t nearly enough to offset a 10.3-per cent stumble by Ford and an ugly 20-per cent plunge by General Motors. As seems to be the pattern in the early months, Chrysler topped the sales charts overall, and by a much greater-than-usual margin over Ford.

In percentage terms, Ford and GM took their biggest hits on the car side, but sales of their big-volume full-size pickups were also down. Even with Dodge Ram sales holding firm, and a 47-per cent surge by the Toyota Tundra, total big-pickup sales dipped 3.9 per cent.

That left small SUVs doing most of the heavy lifting on the truck side. Toyota RAV4 sales more than tripled versus a year-ago month when the previous-generation model was on run-out; sales of the freshly redesigned Nissan Rogue grew by more than 100 per cent; and the Subaru Forester and VW Tiguan more than doubled their sales.
On the face of it, a robust 1,310 sales of Jeep’s new Cherokee also contributed, but that’s not the whole picture: at the same time, combined sales of Jeep’s other lower-priced models – the Wrangler, Compass and Patriot – dropped by almost 1,200 units.

In a bizarre counterpoint to January’s somewhat predictable truck bonanza, the biggest percentage gain posted by any vehicle in Chrysler’s portfolio was the Fiat 500… Cabriolet!

Another huge January advance was posted by the new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, but that’s more easily explained by new-model fever. Then again, some of the other cars that posted significant percentage gains in January (though volumes were tiny) were also sports cars, including the Jaguar XK, BMW Z4, Mercedes SLK and Mazda MX-5. Go figure.

Even if you don’t include that handful of sports cars, January was a strong month for the German, British and Swedish automakers. Every European brand grew its sales, for a combined advance of 15 per cent. That compares with 12 per cent for the Japanese.

Hyundai’s nine-per cent decline and Kia’s six-per cent gain produced a net four-per cent back-slide for the Koreans.

Besides the Toyota RAV4 moon-shot, the Japanese totals also benefitted by Honda Civic’s bounce-back from a singularly lame year-ago month. That made the Civic the top-selling passenger car in fourth place, versus seventh last year. But while the top three nameplates were the Detroit pickups as usual, their rankings were different. In second place, the Dodge Ram with 5,433 sold displaced the usual incumbent, GM’s Sierra/Silverado pairing (4,396). That’s not the first time Ram has outsold its GM rivals, but never before has it done so by such a large margin.