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Small car seen at Bonsecour market in Old Montreal. Quebec residents prefer smaller, cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

With less disposable income, higher fuel prices and an urbanized population, the Quebec auto market more closely resembles Europe than the rest of Canada.

Last year, compact, subcompact and compact SUV models made up 61 per cent of vehicle sales in the province, versus 45.8 per cent country-wide. The Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic are the bestselling vehicles in the province, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc.

Furthermore, when it comes to compacts such as the Elantra and Civic, as well as the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Hyundai Accent and Volkswagen Jetta, Quebec accounts for between 47 per cent and 71 per cent of all sales across Canada.

A variety of other factors make the Quebec auto market unique, ranging from economy to culture. For one, Quebeckers prefer to lease.

"There's certainly no love affair in Quebec for vehicle ownership, (while) there is a serious love affair in the rest of Canada," said Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. "They buy more on a needs basis than on a wants basis.

"A lot of the major markets, like Alberta and to a degree, B.C., Saskatchewan and Ontario, consumers buy as much vehicle as they can afford. In Quebec, they historically buy the least amount of vehicle they can afford."

Which explains why some affordable models, which have struggled to gain a toehold in other regional North American markets, have seen huge success in Quebec. The Fiat 500, for example, was considered a niche player when it entered the Canadian market in 2011.

In its first year, Fiat sold 5,700 Fiat 500s, with Quebec accounting for 43 per cent of all sales.

Nissan didn't attempt to sell its new affordable subcompact, the Micra, in the United Sates, but it sold nearly 1,000 in its first month after being introduced to the Canadian market in May. According to Didier Marsaud, Nissan Canada's senior manager of corporate communications, Quebec will be a big part of the Micra's success in Canada.

Marsaud, who was born and raised in France, adds that he sees many parallels in car culture between his native country and Quebec, adding that the narrow city streets and lack of available parking contribute to the appeal of compact vehicles.

While foreign-made cars such as Hyundai and Nissan top the Quebec market, the province shows a strong aversion to American-made vehicles. In 2012, the Big Three averaged 50.1 per cent of market share across all other provinces, but GM, Ford and Chrysler only made up 30.6 per cent of sales in Quebec.

"The Quebec market was very European-centred, and then the Japanese displaced much of the European preference in the '70s and the '80s, and now the (South) Koreans are pushing the Japanese back a little bit," DesRosiers said. "But there's very much an anti-American sentiment in the Quebec vehicle market."

Though Dave Keane works in construction, the 35-year-old Montreal native doesn't feel the need to own a pickup truck. Instead, Keane drives a 2005 Mazda3 hatchback, which has enough storage space to carry tools and small amounts of materials to job sites, with better fuel economy and manoeuvrability than a pickup truck.

"People say, 'You're in construction, why don't you have a pickup?'" he said. "I don't see the point. Both environmentally and economically, it doesn't make sense to me. … Gas prices are a real nuisance here, to say the least. Because of gas prices and being ecologically minded – at least we think we are – we're discouraged from driving a big truck or gas guzzler."

Keane says that he doesn't mind renting a truck as needed for his construction job, but like many Quebec residents he has little interest in keeping one in his driveway.

While a more robust compact offering might be a driving force behind foreign dominance in the Quebec market, economic factors have also forced the province into the lower end of Canada's car-buying landscape. Higher taxes, fuel prices and a sluggish economy have created a market for more efficient and affordable compact cars. According to a 2009 report by Natural Resources Canada, Quebec has the lowest vehicle ownership rate in the country, with 1.35 cars per household, compared with a national average of 1.47.

"Affordability is key to selling in volumes in Quebec, mainly due to the lower available income," said Daniel Labre, the national communications manager for Chrysler Canada Inc. "Value and pricing with strong finance options are the key why-buys for Quebec consumers."

The cultural divide has also led companies such as Nissan to devise completely different marketing strategies for the Quebec audience. Marketing materials cannot simply be translated, he explained, because Quebec residents don't respond to the same marketing strategies as the rest of the country.

"You need to be deep in this culture to understand the needs," Marsaud said. "That is why we have two teams for advertising, one in Toronto and one in Quebec."

Marsaud adds that the use of local television personalities as brand ambassadors is very common in Quebec, a trend that doesn't translate to the rest of Canada.

Of Hyundai Canada's 211 dealers, 61 are stationed in Quebec. The company similarly employs a separate, Montreal-based agency called Tequila Communications to create marketing campaigns tailor-made for the Quebec market, with a local francophone actor, Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge, at its core.

"It's an approach that's born out of Quebec, developed in Quebec, produced in Quebec and for the Quebec market," said Chad Heard, manager of public relations for Hyundai Canada.

Environmental sustainability has also begun emerging as a trend in the Quebec market, thanks in part to the higher fuel prices. According to fuel price tracking website, Quebec has the third-most expensive gas in the country, averaging 135.5 a litre. Montreal and Quebec City are also the second- and third-most expensive cities for buying gas, with a respective average of 136.2 and 134.4 a litre, trailing only Vancouver.

As a result, the market tends to sway toward more fuel-efficient compact and semi-compact vehicles, but hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles are still far from reaching the same level of popularity.

The Quebec transportation electrification program provides substantial rebates for making the switch: up to $8,000 per electric vehicle and $1,000 per charging station. Hydro-Québec also launched Canada's first-ever public charging network in 2011, which will include 230 charging stations throughout the province, but DesRosiers believes a significant electric fleet is far from reality in Quebec.

"The plug-in electrics and hybrids have failed virtually everywhere in Canada, with the exception of the Toyota Prius," he said. "That being said, all roads lead to electric, so you start to look out 10 years or 20 years, Quebec is probably the best-positioned province to grow their plug-in electric fleet."

Electric vehicles remain few and far between on the streets of Quebec, but so are large SUVs and pickup trucks, for both cultural and economic reasons.

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