Canadian car sales down 15 per cent from year ago, but glimmers of hope seen

TORONTO — Automakers continue slithering through a hellish market but the latest Canadian sales numbers offer hope that the agony is abating, and they restore General Motors to its traditional industry leadership.

TORONTO — Automakers continue slithering through a hellish market but the latest Canadian sales numbers offer hope that the agony is abating, and they restore General Motors to its traditional industry leadership.

Total sales were down 15 per cent nationally last month compared with March 2008, according to a tally released Wednesday by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.

Analyst Dennis DesRosiers observed that this is negative but nevertheless “is a significant improvement from the last few months when sales were down in the mid-20 per cent range.”

And compared with February’s abysmal results, last month’s sales were higher by 59 per cent. Car dealers normally start to get busier seasonally in March, but not usually by nearly that much.

Also on the bright side, DesRosiers noted that automakers say their low-profit sales to rental companies and other fleets were down 30 to 40 per cent from a year ago, “which would mean that retail consumer sales were likely down only in the single-digit range.”

DesRosiers counted March sales of cars, pickups, minivans and SUVs at 127,489, down from 150,024 in March 2008.

General Motors of Canada, one of the two North American carmakers seeking billions of dollars in aid from the federal and Ontario governments, saw its sales fall by 17.6 per cent. That was good enough to return GM to its usual position as the industry sales leader, after Chrysler Canada had briefly usurped this status in February, dropping GM to No. 2 for the first month since at least the early 1950s.

Chrysler, also pleading for taxpayer help to survive, skidded hardest last month among the Detroit Three with a year-over-year decline of 26.6 per cent.

“Dealers tell me that the buying public reacted very poorly to the threat to leave Canada and this likely cost Chrysler some volume,” DesRosiers commented. He was referring to a statement by Chrysler president Tom LaSorda on March 11 that the automaker might shut its Canadian plants unless it can slash labour costs, settle a tax dispute and get a US$2.3-billion loan from Ottawa.

But Chrysler also found hope in the monthly data, noting that its sales were up 33 per cent from February and the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan had its strongest-ever March with 3,775 sales, up four per cent from March 2008.

Ford of Canada matched the general market slide with a 15.1 per cent year-over-year decline.

The numbers were much better in Canada than in the United States, where March sales were down 45 per cent for GM, 41 per cent at Ford and 39 per cent for Chrysler. However, those American sales were also up markedly from February’s 27-year-plus low.

Overall, GM Canada delivered 24,867 vehicles in March, followed by Ford at 17,021; Toyota including Lexus, down 23 per cent to 15,901; Chrysler at 15,846; and Honda including Acura, down 22.8 per cent at 12,570.

Next came Hyundai with a year-over-year sales gain of 25.5 per cent to 8,818, while South Korean stablemate Kia added 12.6 per cent to 3,555.

DesRosiers attributed Hyundai’s rise to “value pricing, good product and some smart marketing.” But the sales tally coincided with a new call from Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza for governments to force offshore automakers to build more cars here and require Asian markets to ease exports from North America.

DesRosiers commented that the Detroit Three “collectively lost market share again in March which is a continuation of a 15-year trend so this is no surprise.”

Notable in last month’s data was strength in high-priced German brands: Mercedes-Benz sales were up 26 per cent from a year ago at 2,181, BMW rose eight per cent to 1,711, Audi added 25 per cent to 979 and Porsche gained 10 per cent to 172.

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