Japan’s automakers lead market higher in May

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By Jeremy Sinek

What’s not to like about a 17.9-per cent sales surge? That performance made May 2012 the best month of the year so far and it was a heartening turn-around from the 1.4-per cent decline in April.

Still, some context is in order.

The final tally of 175,716 cars and lights trucks was comfortably above the previous 10-year average (168,000), but it was still well shy of record territory: four times in the previous 10 years May sales have peaked well above 180,000.

The fact is, this May had two more selling days than May 2011. Plus, last May was such a bust (149,000) that it would have taken a real upset for this May not to grow off such a low base.

A year ago, Japan-based automakers led the market down as the supply disruptions took hold after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Accordingly, Japan also led this May’s bounce-back – up a whopping 37.4 per cent combined.

Detroit did next-best, with a combined 12.3-per cent gain, while Korea and the Europeans trailed at 8.7 and 6.7 per cent respectively.

Japan’s resurgence was really driven by the Big Two, Toyota (up a stunning 65 per cent) and Honda (39 per cent), albeit with strong support from Nissan (37 per cent). Even so, Hyundai didn’t even need its two-per cent uptick to stay ahead of Honda in total sales.

Nissan’s recovery was enough to put it back in front of Kia at the corporate level, but the Korean upstart still outsold the Nissan brand for the month (and is outselling Mazda year-to-date).

As for Detroit, a 27-per cent spurt by Ford (its best May since 1997) was enough to reclaim year-to-date market leadership from Chrysler, even as Windsor (up 7.4 per cent) celebrated its 30th consecutive month of year-over-year sales growth.

General Motors could only eke out a 1.3-per cent gain as weak sales for large cars and crossovers offset healthier large-pickup sales. Indeed, were it not for the added volume provided by two popular new nameplates – Buick Verano and Chevrolet Orlando – aggregate sales of GM’s established lineup would have declined.

Canadians still seemed in two minds about the price of gas in May. For the third month in a row, Toyota sold more than 1,000 Priuses (the original, plus the new v and c models) while sales of most popular small cars also surged. At the same time, combined sales of Detroit’s full-size pickups jumped 28 per cent, and those three nameplates alone (out of 300 in total) accounted for one in seven of all light-duty vehicles sold in May.

Also worth a mention is the Jeep Wrangler, somewhat of a niche product, you’d think, as well as a gas-guzzler: Chrysler sold 2,091 of them in May, which is more than the sales of such mainstream products as Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Fusion.

There was also an unusual level of activity in intermediate sedans, with fleet sales likely accounting for some of the stand-out performances, such as: Ford Taurus, up 260 per cent; Chrysler 300, up 250 per cent; Chrysler 200, 131 per cent; Toyota Camry, 127 per cent; Nissan Altima, 123 per cent.

The fleet portion of Taurus included first deliveries of Ford’s new Taurus-based Police Interceptor; co-incidentally, GM’s fleet/cop-car mainstay, the Chevrolet Impala, swooned 48 per cent in May.

Other May highlights: Record May sales for Toyota Truck, Subaru, BMW and Porsche; Any-month record sales for the MINI and Kia brands as well as for Chevrolet Volt, Dodge Ram, Kia Rio, and Nissan Juke and Titan.

Among market debutants, 398 Infiniti JX sales in its first full month, and first recorded sales of Acura ILX (14, after a late-month debut).