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Vive la différence

When it comes to car buying, we are not like Americans Add to ...

We are not Americans. This comes as a surprise to many Americans, particularly Americans and other non-Canadians who come to Canada to run car companies.

We may, in general, look like Americans and watch too many American television programs. The stoplights and yield signs in Toronto and Calgary look just like the ones in Los Angeles and Houston. We watch movies from Hollywood, and we like our NFL – right through to Super Bowl Sunday.

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But compared with Americans, we buy less expensive vehicles and we equip them with engine heaters and heated wipers and mirrors. Americans buy sport-utilities with front-wheel drive and use them as station wagons in Texas and Arizona. Canadians buy SUVs with four- or all-wheel drive almost exclusively and use them to tackle snowy and icy roads. We also love hatchbacks, while Americans associate hatchbacks with cheap vehicles or station wagons and either one is the kiss of death for any company hoping to sell cars in the United States.

Most importantly, we don’t buy vehicles and fall in love with them the way Americans do.

“In 2012,” says Dennis DesRosiers of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, “a registered car existed for a full 96.1 per cent of driving-age Americans. Amazingly, that figure represents a reduction in cars-per-people from a pre-recession peak of 100.1 per cent, reached in 2007.” On average, there is almost one car per American.

Not so in Canada. Here, DesRosiers says, there is one car for just 77 per cent of driving-age Canadians. That’s a huge difference in ownership levels – three-quarters of a car per Canadian, on average.

Of course, not every American with a driver’s licence actually owns a car. What the numbers show, says DesRosiers, is that Americans embrace multivehicle ownership more thoroughly and profoundly than Canadians. That is, it’s not terribly unusual to see a fleet of cars parked in the driveway and on the street in front of the home of a typical American suburbanite.

DesRosiers says research also shows that two divergent groups – young and elderly Americans – have higher ownership rates than in Canada. Moreover, poor Americans own cars at a higher rate than poor Canadians. Americans without money still find ways to own a car.

Most of the newly arrived heads of car companies in Canada eventually reach the conclusion that when it comes to cars, we’re more European than American. And I do mean cars, not light trucks – pickups and sport-utility vehicles and the like. Of the top 10 best-selling passenger cars in Canada last year, only two were mid-size sedans – the Ford Fusion at No. 8 and the Toyota Camry at No. 10.

We buy compact cars in fantastic numbers in Canada. The country’s top-selling model for 16 straight years is the made-in-Canada Honda Civic (64,062 sold). In the U.S., the best-selling car is the Camry mid-size sedan. In 2013, Americans bought 408,484 Camrys and 366,678 mid-size Honda Accords.

Americans also went nuts for Toyota’s family of Prius hybrids in 2013, snapping up 238,228 Prius models (the basic hatchback, along with the Prius c subcompact and the Prius v wagon). That was 20 times the number of Prius family models bought by Canadians that year.

That in a market that is only about nine times larger than Canada’s. Indeed, Americans bought 15.6 million light vehicles last year, versus the 1.74 million bought by Canadians – a Canadian record. The United States has yet to match the sales numbers of pre-recession 2007, when Americans bought 16.2 million new vehicles. So we’re snapping up new rides at a much greater rate than Americans. For now. DesRosiers expects ownership rates in both Canada and the United States to stabilize this decade.

Where we’re similar to Americans is in our love of pickups. Buyers on both sides of the border went nuts for big rigs last year. Ford sold 122,325 F-Series pickups to Canadians last year, an all-time high of 122,325. Another 793,402 Americans did the same thing, making the F-Series the best-selling vehicle on both sides of the border. Chrysler’s Ram pickup also had a stunning year, here and in the United States, and it was a similar story for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. We’re arm-in-arm with Americans on this.

Buyers on both sides also like their compact SUVs, with the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4 all landing on the top-10 list of light trucks in Canada and the United States. But where larger SUVs such as the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee made the U.S. light truck top 10, smaller SUVs such as the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and Dodge Journey nudged out Explorers and their ilk in Canada.

However, for the single vehicle that most clearly speaks to the difference between Canadians and Americans, look no further than the venerable minivan. Some might say this is the quintessential Canadian car. Practical, useful, affordable and bland.

Canadians bought 46,732 Dodge Grand Caravans last year, making it the sixth best-selling vehicle over all. No minivan cracked the top 30 best-selling vehicles list in the U.S.

No, we’re not Americans. We still buy minivans.

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