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Vehicles sit on the lot of a Chrysler dealership in Calgary on Nov. 22, 2012.Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Canadian auto sales plummeted in March, echoing the dramatic slowdowns seen in overseas markets that were first hit by the novel coronavirus.

Total light-vehicle sales plunged by 48 per cent in March from a year earlier, according to an estimate from DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, which said “even greater sales declines” are expected for April and May.

“With provinces declaring states of emergency, Quebec closing down front-end dealerships, and many dealerships across the country voluntarily shutting down, March sales fell precipitously in the second half of the month,” DesRosiers said in a news release.

DesRosiers noted that “no brand came out unscathed,” with most seeing sales declines of between 33 per cent and 66 per cent from the previous March.

The auto-sales data are noteworthy because they are one of the earliest indications of how consumers have pulled back on spending during the pandemic, and suggest other sectors are set for a similarly brutal shock.

“March’s decline in vehicle sales is eye-popping, providing an early reading on the impact that physical distancing measures, economic uncertainty and store closures are having on consumer demand,” Toronto-Dominion Bank economist Ksenia Bushmeneva said in a client note. “While we won’t see March retail sales numbers for some time to come, they will likely show an equally dramatic decline, with only grocery stores and pharmacy sales likely to come out unscathed.”

Canada’s auto slowdown was foreshadowed by grim statistics out of Asia and Europe. Global auto sales dropped by more than 20 per cent in February from a year earlier, with China registering an 82-per-cent decline.

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