Detroit sits it out while March sales are busting out

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By Jeremy Sinek

Don’t be deceived by the March market’s relatively modest 2.8-per cent growth. Compared with the double-digit gains in the first two months it may look as if the auto-sales recovery is faltering, but context is everything.  
Last March was a break-out month – the best March in more than a decade. And this March was even better (helped, admittedly, by one extra selling day).

The March 2012 tally of 157,750 cars and lights trucks beat the month’s previous-10-year average by more than 11,000 units. With the first quarter in the books, the year-to-date total is running 8.4 per cent ahead of last year’s pace.

Still, it wasn’t a case of a rising tide lifts all boats. While there were more floaters than sinkers in March, the ones that went under included some of the biggest players – Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda. But then again, there’s that context thing:  Ford, GM, and Honda all had up months a year ago – strongly so in the case of the Detroit two.

Despite growing its sales by 8.4 per cent in March, Chrysler Canada paradoxically remained in third place behind declining Ford and GM for the month. Yet Windsor remains the country’s top-selling automaker year-to-date, albeit now by only a sliver over Ford.

Overall, Detroit’s sales sagged by 1.3 per cent in March while the offshore automakers advanced 6.3 per cent. At the same time Canadians were buying more passenger cars (up 6.8 per cent) while truck sales stagnated (down 0.3 per cent).  

Year-to-date the offshore makers are ahead 13.7 per cent while Detroit trails the overall market with a 2.4-per cent uptick. In percentage terms the imports’ YTD growth is led by the Europeans (up 19.9 per cent) followed by the Japanese (13.7 per cent) and the Koreans (12.7 per cent). Among the latter, Kia is growing at almost three times the pace of its parent, Hyundai.

The action in the various auto categories reveals all kinds of upsets and turnabouts. Consider, for example full-size pickups. The segment has traditionally been a two-horse race between the Ford and GM offerings (usually in that order) with Chrysler’s Ram a distant third. Year to date, however, the Ford F Series has broken clear, while all-time record sales in March have propelled the Ram to within striking distance of the fading GM Silverado/Sierra duo.

Among intermediate cars the Camry`s 2012 redesign has meant a huge come-back for the Toyota mainstay, which now leads the segment, up from a lowly seventh this time last year; as well, the Kia Optima, after a slow start, is becoming a real player in the segment, achieving sales its dowdy predecessor, Magentis, could only dream of.

Among the many rivals being trounced by the AJAC award-winning Kia is the once dominant Honda Accord. In fact, if you exclude the Crosstour version, Accord is even being outsold now by the Volkswagen Passat.

Mercedes-Benz is busting heads all over the place: the freshened C-Class has so far bested the BMW 3 Series for volume leadership of the entry-luxury segment; E-Class is widening its lead over 5 Series in luxury high; the redesigned SLK has surged from nowhere to second in the sport high sector; and the Mercedes M-Class has vaulted from eighth to first among luxury SUVs.

Other new segment leaders include Hyundai Veloster as the fastest-selling sporty car; Honda CR-V has overtaken the Ford Escape as the most popular small SUV; and Dodge Durango has displaced GM’s Tahoe/Yukon twins as the large-SUV sales leader.

The popularity of the above new entries and redesigned stalwarts has also fuelled the growth of their entire segments. The fastest-expanding segments so far this year are sporty (up 51 per cent), large SUV (38 pc) and intermediate car (31 per cent). Subcompact and sport-high cars are also beating the market at 26 and 25 per cent respectively. The categories experiencing the steepest drops are small van (down 8.6 per cent), and small pickup (16.5 per cent).

Some things, however, don’t change: Honda Civic is having no trouble beating back the Hyundai Elantra’s challenge to its compact-car leadership; and the Dodge Grand Caravan still achieves more minivan sales than all its rivals combined.

Among market newcomers, Toyota’s subcompact Prius c hybrid achieved 328 sales in its first (partial) month; after its first full month the Buick Verano is already running fifth in entry-luxury; and Mazda’s CX-5 compact SUV scored 1,649 sales in its first full month.