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Prospects for a record year are receding, but diesels are on a roll


By Jeremy Sinek

With a positive November in the books, it’s a virtual certainty that total 2012 sales will come in above the 2011 total. It’s also a pretty safe bet that 2012 will be at least the second-best auto sales year in Canada: even if December sales were merely average, the year would close the books with 1.68 million, bettering the almost-record 1.65 million recorded in 2007.

But after November’s fairly modest 3.8-per cent uptick, and with consumer confidence waning, a new all-time record might be a stretch.

The existing record of 1.7 million set in 2002 included an exceptionally strong December – almost 141,000 sales, versus a December average of 116,000 over the past 10 years.

With sales through November at 1.57 million, this December would have to achieve about 136,400 sales to beat the 2002 record. That would represent a 19-per cent surge over December 2011 – not impossible, but unlikely.

Some trends, though, are already set in stone. After a weak November, once-dominant General Motors will end the year in a distant third place behind Ford and Chrysler. But at least it will have avoided the ignominy of being outsold by Hyundai-Kia. Yes, there were months in 2012 when the Korean siblings’ combined sales did outpace GM’s. As of November, however, Oshawa’s lead was enough to look secure from an 11th-hour upset.

Still, GM’s 2012 weakness has offset up a positive year for Ford and Chrysler, leaving Detroit sales essentially flat (up 0.4 per cent as of November, in an overall market up 6.5 per cent). The growth, of course, was driven by the import nameplates, up 12 per cent over the same period.

For Detroit, November itself mirrored the year so far, with GM’s weakness offsetting decent months for Ford and Chrysler. Even so, GM kept in front of the Koreans, despite Hyundai-Kia’s combined 19-per cent advance.

Other automakers’ November fortunes were all over the map. Among the Japanese, Subaru spurted 36 per cent, Mitsubishi grew three per cent and Mazda edged up one per cent while the rest fell short of last November’s totals.

For the Europeans, Porsche had a huge month (up 164 per cent!) and Volkswagen-Audi surged a robust 19 per cent. All other European brands went backwards (including Mercedes-Benz, despite first sales of its new B-Class model).

Sign of the times: as of November, sports cars represented only one third of Porsche sales in 2012. The Cayenne SUV alone accounted for more than half, with the Panamera sedan making up the rest. And get this: one third of Cayenne sales in November were the recently-introduced diesel version. At 52 units, a diesel SUV alone recorded more sales than any one of Porsche’s three sports-car models.

This occurred in the same month that Audi announced it will extend a diesel engine option to an additional four models – Q5, A6, A7 and A8. The big-selling A4 sedan will get a diesel at the time of its next full model change, expected in 2015.

Mercedes-Benz also reported a diesel take rate of 80 per cent on its luxury light trucks last month (not counting the Sprinter commercial van, which is 100-per cent diesel).

Volkswagen now offers diesel on five of the eight nameplates it offers in Canada. And Mazda officially debuted the diesel engine at the Los Angeles Auto Show that will become available next fall in its next-generation Mazda6 midsize sedan.

That’s in addition to the diesel options that Chevrolet and Jeep have already confirmed they will offer next year on the Cruze compact sedan and Grand Cherokee SUV respectively.

Even in the U.S., where diesel fuel is typically more expensive than gasoline, diesels’ share of the car market is expected to double from three per cent currently to six per cent by 2015. Every new diesel variant added to U.S. lineups will also open up more choice for Canadians, who are already ahead of Americans in their enthusiasm for the fuel-sipping alternative.