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driving it home

2013 Honda Civic Si.

When it comes to new-car sales, the results of one month can be nothing more than a blip. Two months? An aberration. But three months? Three months often makes for a trend.

The trend lines in Canada so far this year indicate a slowing market, with buyers shunning small cars in particular. More intriguing, both Honda and Toyota are struggling to move their core compact models off dealer lots.

Honda Civic sales are down 21 per cent, despite an excellent update to the 2013 version. Toyota Corolla sales, meanwhile, have slipped 12 per cent in 2013 versus the same period in 2012.

The Corolla's woes are not a surprise. This is an aged model in desperate need of an update. In fact, Corolla sales were down a stunning 21.5 per cent in March alone, even with some healthy sales sweeteners in play.

Hyundai's Elantra compact, then, remains Canada's best-selling passenger car. This probably won't last the year, however; Honda will do everything possible to defend the made-in-Canada Civic's crown as Canada's best-selling car. Still, the Elantra's year-to-date sales are up 4.4 per cent in a segment where sales are down 3.3 per cent.

Ford's Fusion intermediate sedan also appears to have gained traction in 2012, with sales up 33.4 per cent in the first quarter. Yes, Ford has piled on the deals for the Fusion, but it is also an excellent car, with a bold design and fuel-efficient power train choices.

Ford is also defending the position of the F-Series pickup. Sales are up 12.6 per cent, despite a record year in 2012. Again, Ford has loaded up the F-Series with rich sales incentives and a powerful marketing campaign that is broad and deep – stretching right down to the dealer level.

At least part of Ford's plan seems to be to soak up as much pickup truck demand as possible before General Motors launches its all-new 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups this fall. In other words, Ford is trying to blunt the launch of the new GM rigs. GM's pickup efforts aren't being helped by the Chrysler Group, either. Its Ram remains hot, with sales up 15.2 per cent.

Honda's results are particularly perplexing. Not only is the Civic off substantially, but CR-V compact SUV sales are down 34.8 per cent in a segment that's off just 1.3 per cent on the year. This suggests the CR-V is being hammered by newer and arguably more attractive competitors, such as the Santa Fe Sport from Hyundai, the reinvented Toyota RAV4 and Ford's Escape.

As for the one-month returns, DesRosiers Automotive Consultants points out in a note to clients that overall March sales were about the same in 2013 as 2012 (156,680 units in March 2013 versus 157,749 in March 2012), yet "the segment composition of that sales total differed considerably from that which consumers preferred in the past. Hot, high volume segments like subcompact car (-8.1 per cent), compact car (-3.3 per cent), intermediate car (-10.3 per cent), compact sport utility (-1.6 per cent) and intermediate sport utility (-7.1 per cent) cooled noticeably."

Meanwhile, March was a great month for small luxury cars (up 9.1 per cent), compact luxury sport-utility vehicles (up 53.9 per cent) and large luxury SUVs (up 94.8 per cent). And, of course, big pickups just keep flying off dealer lots (up 9.7 per cent).

Pickups aren't cheap, so the takeaway here is that new vehicle buyers are willing to spend big bucks, but only on a vehicle they really want and more likely need for work.

Here's a look at Canada's top 10 cars and light trucks through the first quarter of 2013:

Passenger Cars20132012% gain/loss
1. Hyundai Elantra11,33710,8644.4%
2. Honda Civic11,28714,281-21.0%
3. Mazda38,8518,0539.9%
4. Toyota Corolla7,8818,954-12.0%
5. Volkswagen Jetta7,0244,99640.6%
6. Chevrolet Cruze6,579 6,747-2.5%
7. Ford Focus4,7345,222-9.3%
8. Ford Fusion4,3983,29633.4%
9. Hyundai Accent3,7644,866-22.6%
10. Honda Accord3,7261,371171.8%
Light Trucks20132012% gain/loss
1. Ford F-Series25,87022,97812.6%
2. Ram pickup17,98715,608 15.2%
3. Dodge Caravan10,05512,051-16.6%
4. GMC Sierra9,4319,0004.8%
5. Ford Escape8,4118,2821.6%
6. Chevrolet Silverado8,1867,673  6.7%
7. Toyota RAV46,6784,77140.0%
8. Dodge Journey6,5486,4651.3%
9. Honda CR-V5,7858,870-34.8%
10. Hyundai Santa Fe Sport5,7114,80818.8%

Source: DesRosiers Automotive Consultants