Q1 complete with no sign yet of that record year

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By Jeremy Sinek
 
March may have brought all-time record sales for some individual brands, but for the market as a whole it marked a third losing month in a row, putting the seal on an overall first-quarter decline of 1.9 per cent.

Still, March itself wasn’t a total bust. The decline was only 0.7 per cent, and the numbers for this March are based on two fewer selling days than last’s year’s record March sales. Average daily sales were actually up 6.3 per cent this time.

For the first month this year, Ford (up 1.7 per cent) managed to outsell Chrysler (7.0), but not quite by enough to oust Windsor from its sales leadership year-to-date. Another losing month kept GM (down 10.9 per cent) in an increasingly distant third; GM’s failure to keep up also meant that for the first time this year the Detroit troika failed to outperform the offshore brands, with both groups declining 0.7 per cent for the month.

Year-to-date, though, Detroit is 1.8 per cent ahead of last year’s pace, while the “imports” are 4.8 per cent in arrears.

The pain is not spread equally, though, among the offshore brands. Despite all-time record sales in March for Infiniti and Subaru, the Japanese automakers combined are down 7 per cent and the Koreans are hardly doing much better, at minus 5.8 per cent. As if the false-fuel-economy-figures fiasco didn’t sufficiently tarnish Hyundai and Kia’s shine of late, now the sister brands are facing a recall involving 1.7 million vehicles in North America.

Meanwhile, the Europeans are cumulatively 2.6 per cent ahead of last year’s pace. Weak markets at home, combined with the weakness of the Euro, are providing European-based automakers with both the incentive and the ability to complete aggressively on price in Canada and the U.S.

Most of the heavy lifting so far is being done by Volkswagen – and specifically by the VW brand, which is up 12.4 per cent, even as sister brand Audi has faltered by 9.9 per cent.

In turn, the main power behind VW`s streak is the Mexican-built Jetta. Already now priced in the heart of the compact sedan market since its 2011 redesign, the current-generation Jetta received further price cuts for 2013, with the entry model now starting at just $14,990.

The result: for the first time ever the Jetta ended the first quarter among Canada’s Top 10 best-selling vehicles – and not a long way behind that other perennial 10-best incumbent, the Toyota Corolla.

As well, helped by the sustained strength of the loonie, Volkswagen Canada on March 1 slashed the price of entry for its contender in the hot compact-SUV segment: the built-in-Germany Tiguan now starts below $25,000, a price reduction of almost $3,000.

Given the importance of this segment in Canada (the cuts do not apply in the U.S.), Volkswagen Canada believes higher volume will more than offset any reduced per-unit profit.

“The key argument was the sustained strength of the Canadian dollar,” said Volkswagen Canada spokesperson, Thomas Tetzlaff, “and the indicators don’t show it falling off a cliff any time soon.”

In percentage terms, the largest growth amongst Europeans have been Jaguar-Land-Rover.  Coinciding with the debut of AWD on the XF and XJ sedans, Jaguar sales rose 75 per cent January through March; Land Rover sales climbed 22 per cent, propelled not just by the arrival of the all-new Range Rover, but also a  doubling of sales for the freshened LR2. March was an any-month record for Land Rover Canada.

Not coincidentally, the single fastest-growing vehicle segment in the first quarter was Luxury SUVs, up 12.0 per cent in an overall market down 1.9 per cent. Large pickup sales were also buoyant (10.9 per cent). The only other segments to show growth were also on the truck side – large vans up 2.7 per cent, and compact SUVs up 0.9 per cent.

The best performance for any passenger-car segment was intermediate sedans, down 1.8 per cent.