Japanese advance, Detroit stands fast, Koreans retreat and Canada sets new record

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By Jeremy Sinek

Brutal winter weather failed to keep Canadians out of showrooms in December, but it did seem to affect the types of vehicles they bought. While total new-vehicle sales grew 3.8 per cent, the numbers behind that number show an almost unprecedented swing from cars to light trucks.

Specifically, car sales actually sagged almost 10 per cent in December, while light-truck sales soared by more than 14 per cent. That gave the latter a market share of 62 per cent for the month, compared with a more typical share of around 55 per cent.

Either way, December’s growth was more than enough to put the seal on a new record year for Canadian car and light-truck sales. The final full-year count of 1.743 million not only beat 2012 by 4.0 per cent; it also was 2.3 per cent – or about 40,000 units – above the previous record of 1.703 million set in 2002.

General Motors made a rare appearance at the top of the chart in December as it grew its sales 16.5 per cent. But it wasn’t nearly enough to keep it out of third place for the whole year. Likewise, Ford had enough sales in the bank that a 4.2-per cent back-slide in December didn’t threaten its position at the top of the sales standings, still almost 25,000 units in front of Chrysler.

Over the year, the Big Three slightly outperformed the offshore-based competition, but the effect was barely measurable: their market share inched up to 44.6 from 44.5. Realistically, Detroit merely held its ground. And even that was thanks only to Chrysler, which beat the overall market with a 6.7-per cent advance while GM and Ford posted market-lagging growth of 3.6 and 2.7 per cent respectively.

December also cemented the 2013 trend that saw the Koreans stumble. Both Hyundai and Kia sales shrank in December – by a shocking 29 per cent in Kia’s case – which left them down 2.1 per cent for the year. The Europeans meanwhile grew 3.5 per cent in 2013 and the Japanese-based brands advanced six per cent.

A record market obviously also meant record years for many brands. The list was mostly European, including Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, MINI, Porsche, and Volkswagen. But Lexus, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru were also in there, while Toyota claimed record light-truck sales. Jaguar didn’t achieve record sales volume, but it posted the highest year-over-year growth (96 per cent) of any brand.

In percentage terms, Subaru’s 18.6-per cent spurt headed the Japanese come-back in 2013, but in terms of volume the heavy lifting was done by Honda’s 10.4-per cent gain, equivalent to about 15,500 vehicles. Paradoxically, that growth didn’t include the Civic, sales of which wilted 1.4 per cent. And yet, the Honda compact still cruised to a 16th consecutive year as Canada’s top-selling passenger car.

Odd things were happening in Honda showrooms in December: Civic sales actually plunged almost 50 per cent while CR-V sales doubled. Sales of the Fit subcompact grew more than five-fold. The CR-V’s December surge made it Honda’s top seller for the month, ahead of Civic. It also clinched the CR-V a second consecutive year in the overall Top 10 at the expense of its nemesis, the surging Toyota RAV4.

While the list of Top 10 models contained all the usual suspects, it’s notable that the Ford F-Series continued to extend its lead as Canada’s overall top-selling nameplate while the Dodge Ram is increasingly a threat to GM’s Silverado/Sierra’s second place. The only actual change in the Top 10 rankings, however, saw the Hyundai Elantra overtake the Dodge Grand Caravan for fifth overall.

Not surprisingly, the growth in the light-truck share of the market (up to 56.1 per cent from 54.7 per cent) was largely driven by compact SUVs (up 13.2 per cent) with strong support from large pickups (up 11 per cent). But who would have expected that the segment to grow the most (in percentage terms, not volume) would be high-end sports cars, up 18.3 per cent? Entry-luxury cars and luxury SUVs also out-performed the market, at around seven per cent apiece.

The fastest-shrinking segment in 2013 was small pickups, while sporty cars, minivans and high luxury cars also shrank by more than five per cent in an overall market that was up four per cent.