It’s all about utility as Detroit and Japan propel sales back into the black


By Jeremy Sinek

One sizzling April was all it took to melt away the sales chill of the entire first quarter.

April’s tally of almost 172,000 sales wasn’t quite an April record, but its 8.9-per cent gain was enough to turn around the year-to-date story from -1.9 per cent through March to a positive 1.4 per cent through April.

Once again Detroit (up 12.8 per cent) outpaced the offshore-based opposition (5.8 per cent). And for a change GM didn’t sit on the sidelines – it lead the charge, with a 19-per cent surge, outpacing Ford’s 15.5 per cent and Chrysler’s 5.0 per cent. Ford, in turn, not only outsold Chrysler but also, for the first time this year, overtook its rival for year-to-date sales leadership.

Among the offshore brands, there was a sharp distinction between the Japanese, which posted their first growth month this year (up 12.7 per cent) and the Europeans and the Koreans, fading 2.5 and 5.4 per cent respectively. For the Hyundai-Kia partnership, that made it a clean sweep of losing months in 2013.

April also accelerated a trend that has seen light trucks outpace cars in 2013 – a trend that is being driven by the imports. In April alone, light-truck sales were up 16 per cent, cars up one per cent. What’s striking is that while Detroit grew sales of both categories by 12-13 per cent, the import story was: cars down 2.7 per cent, cars up 21.7 per cent.

Where are the import brands finding all these light-truck sales? Mostly in new or redesigned compact and mid-size CUVs.

In the fast-growing compact CUV segment, sales have been stimulated by new generations of already big-selling players like the Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Santa Fe and Subaru Forester as well as the surprising popularity of Subaru’s new “Outback light,” the Impreza-based XV Crosstrek. The RAV4 even edged into the Top 10 sellers chart year-to-date, while the new-last-February Mazda CX-5 is now also a significant player in the segment.

The new-generation Acura RDX and the entirely new Infiniti JX are having the same effect among luxury SUVs, and the new Nissan Pathfinder CUV is vastly outselling its SUV predecessor. Yet even many established designs are doing well in 2013 – the BMW X3 is up 118 per cent YTD, the Acura MDX 33 per cent, Mitsubishi RVR 30 per cent and Toyota Highlander 21 per cent, to name but some.

In another department, Hyundai’s Elantra family (up 3.0 per cent in April) extended its passenger-car sales lead over the perennial incumbent, Honda Civic (down 9.7 per cent in April and 18 per cent YTD).

Is it time for Honda to bring back a Civic with a tailgate? Since this time last year, Hyundai has added both hatchback and coupe versions of the Elantra and the sales breakdown is interesting: year-to-date, 27 per cent of Elantra sales were hatchbacks while only four per cent were coupes.

Honda’s Civic coupe does relatively better at 14 per cent (based on calendar 2012 sales), but that’s still barely half of the hatchback’s share of Elantra sales.

Among other leading compact car lines, Ford reports more than half of Focus sales (53 per cent) are the hatchback version; Toyota doesn’t have a Corolla hatchback per se, but the Matrix is arguably the same thing and it represents 23 per cent of combined sales of both nameplates. Over at Mazda, the hatchback accounts for more than one third of Mazda3 sales.

For awhile in the 1990s, Honda sold sedan, hatchback and coupe versions of the Civic, but the hatchback was only a three-door and it was discontinued after the 1999 model year (though a sporty UK-built Si hatchback was imported for a while in the early 2000s).

In most of the rest of the world, a five-door hatchback is the top-selling Civic, though it’s built on a shorter wheelbase than the North American sedan and coupe and might not be roomy enough for this market.