By Greg Wilson
Value, practicality, and reputation figure prominently
Canada’s top ten best-selling vehicles reflect the practical, value-oriented nature of Canadian buyers, says one of Canada’s leading automotive writers.
“Canada has traditionally been a more price-sensitive market than in the United States, particularly in Quebec,” says Jim Kenzie, auto reviewer for the Toronto Star and Motoring TV. “In terms of cars, we’re more sub-compact/compact oriented rather than mid-size – their best-sellers, Camry, Accord, Taurus aren’t even on our Top Ten list..”
According to the June 25th issue of Canadian Auto World, a bi-weekly auto industry publication, the top ten best-selling vehicles include three minivans, two pickup trucks, and five compact cars – interestingly, there are no SUV’s, mid-sized cars, or luxury cars on the list.
The Top Ten vehicles, in order, are: the Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan, GMC Sierra/Chevrolet Silverado pickup, Ford F-Series pickup, Honda Civic, GM’s front-wheel-drive minivans, Chevrolet Cavalier, Toyota Corolla, Ford Windstar, Ford Focus, and Pontiac Sunfire.
Chryslers minivans have been popular with Canadians since they were first introduced in 1983.
“There’s a lot of history associated with it,” says Bob Renaud, VP of Public and Government Affairs for DaimlerChrysler Canada. “The minivan segment was created by Chrysler and Dodge back in 1983, and when you start first you have a definite advantage. We’ve had a very loyal following of people who have owned our minivans since they were first introduced..”
DaimlerChrysler’s share of the minivan market has dropped from approximately 50% to 37% over the past five years, but Chrysler’s minivans still command the lion’s share of the market when compared with other minivans – despite an onslaught of new minivan competitors and some high-profile quality problems over the years.
“Chrysler’s had problems with air conditioners and automatic transmissions and so on, but people keep coming back to them, and I think that’s because overall they offer the best combination of features for the most numbers of people,” says Kenzie. “I mean, you can get a dealer special for what, 22,000 bucks? Or you can load up a four-wheel-drive Town & Country for 55,000 bucks – and absolutely every purchase point in between.”
Daniel Heraud, automobile reviewer for Microsoft CarPoint.ca, says the Caravan/Grand Caravan is a good compromise for a family. “It handles very well, especially in the snow, and it feels safe,” he says. Heraud also thinks the Caravan has a superior interior design and a better driving position than other minivans. On the negative side, Heraud says it could use better headlights and better brakes.
Kenzie believes that minivans appeal to a much broader market than just parents with young children.
“It appears that there’s a strong market for people who keep their minivans after the kids have moved out – they get used to the utility of their minivan and don’t want to give it up..”
“Ultimately, it’s the best-selling vehicle in Canada because it’s the most desirable vehicle for the average Canadian,” says DaimlerChrysler’s Renaud.
2001 GMC Sierra
Number 2 on the Top Ten list is the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra full-size pickup truck. GM lumps these two vehicles together because they are virtually the same trucks – only minor styling differences distinguish them.
Redesigned in 1999, these pickups are available in many variations: regular cab, extended cab and crew cab bodystyles, long and short wheelbases, with V6, V8 and turbo-diesel V8 engine choices.
“One reason they sell so well,” says Kenzie, “is that GM offers such a wide range of models and options, everything from a relatively cheap, base six cylinder pickup truck to a fully loaded dually, four door crew cab.”
Auto critics have praised the most recent generation General Motors full-size trucks for their roomy cabs, powerful engines, standard four wheel disc brakes, and better build quality.
Says Kenzie, “The new GM pickups are really the class of the field, in terms of comfort, quietness, braking power and steering feel.”
Heraud agrees. “The new generation of Sierras and Silverados were very well done – more car-oriented, stronger, more rigid, and better value.”
Pickup trucks have a broader market than most passenger vehicles because they appeal to both personal and commercial users. Farmers, plumbers, carpenters, painters, movers, retailers, and other commercial buyers buy them for their utility, while personal users buy them for towing recreational trailers and occasional tasks like hauling gravel, building supplies, furniture, tools, and what-have-you.
The same reasons apply to Canada’s third best-seller on the Top Ten list, the Ford F-Series full-size pickup, last redesigned in 1996. The F-Series is not far behind the Silverado/Sierra pickups in sales, and compared with either the Silverado or Sierra individually, the F-Series comes out the winner.
Ford of Canada Product Information Manager, Chris Banks, says the F-Series is popular because of its “proven reputation, and good value”
Auto journalist Jim Kenzie agrees. “Ford’s history in pickup trucks needs no elaboration – and like GM, they offer a wide range of models. The F-Series styling was very controversial when it was introduced in 1996 – GM deliberately went the other way with their new pickups in 1999 – but the Fords still look good and they continue to sell well,” says Kenzie.
Heraud agrees that the F-Series’ strong reputation is a big factor in its continuing sales success. “When buyers want a strong truck they buy a Ford,” says Heraud.
The first car on the Top Ten List, the Honda Civic, was redesigned for 2001. It’s available as a four-door sedan and a two-door coupe.
“The Honda Civic is a perennial best-seller in Canada, and it’s particularly important in the Quebec market,” says Kenzie. “It’s a tremendous little car – great handling, very spirited performance and yet practical and reliable as well. It’s a shame the hatchback is gone – they dropped the hatchback primarily due to pressure from the American marketing people, but it will come back with the SIR version as more hatchbacks join the market.”
Heraud agrees the Civic sells well because of its reputation, but he doesn’t like its engine. “They haven’t adapted the engine for the North American market,” he says. “They are made mainly for Europe and Japan. They have no power at low rpm, and the power comes on too late.” In addition, the base models look cheap says Heraud. “The plastics and fabric seem cheap,” he says.
Kenzie believes the Civic was given a head start in the late 70’s and early 80’s when the Japanese cars were under voluntary import restraints. “The numbers that were agreed on were based upon the previous 18 months sales I believe – that time-frame just happened to coincide with when the Civic had been extremely popular after the energy crisis, so Honda got a very high quota to sell..which gave Honda a head-start.”
Number 5 on the list is GM’s front-wheel-drive minivans, the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana and Oldsmobile Silhouette which come in regular and extended length wheelbase models. The three GM minivans differ only in styling and level of equipment.
“I’m a bit surprised to see GM minivans as high as Number 5 on the list because you don’t think of them as being as popular, but as GM often does, they shoot themselves in the foot in terms of stats like this because they divide one product up across several brand lines.”
“They’ve come a long way in design,” says Heraud. “The former generation of GM minivans with their ‘Dustbuster’ styling, was a flop,” he says. Heraud likes GM van’s standard 180 horsepower 3.4 litre V6 engine because it has more power and torque than the Caravan’s standard 3.3 litre engine, and gets better fuel consumption.
“One of the GM minivans strengths is ride quality and comfort, particularly in the back seat where the non-paying but most critical customers are,” says Kenzie. “They’ve also been the leaders in putting the video screens in the back seat.”
The weak point of GM vans, says Heraud, is their “craftsmanship and quality of the components.” And Heraud thinks GM vans are not as comfortable as Chrsyler vans. “The rear seats are too low for adults”, he says.
Kenzie recalls that GM vans did poorly in crash tests. “They’ve been somewhat controversial vehicles – they had some problems with crash test results early on. Also, GM did an Opel Sintra version for Europe which was not a success, and has been discontinued.”
Number 6 on the list is the Chevrolet Cavalier, another long-time Canadian best-seller. The current Cavalier was revised in 1995 but has been using the same platform since the early 80’s. “You could buy a brand new one and qualify for a vintage car meet,” jokes Kenzie.
Despite its aging platform, the Cavalier has remained a Canadian best-seller for more than ten years – it was in the Number One spot for the better part of the 90’s. It’s available as a four-door sedan, two-door coupe and two-door convertible.
“Canadians in particular tend to buy cars on a cubic yards of car for the dollar basis. It has a lot of room, a lot of features – it’s not very sophisticated, but most people don’t really care about that,” says Kenzie.
Heraud points out that the Cavalier is not as small as some of its import competitors. “It’s roomy inside, it has a big trunk, it’s tough, the body is strong, and it’s got some guts..and the price is good,” he says.
GM has four models on the Top Ten list, and Kenzie believes GM’s large dealer network contributes to their sales success.
“They’ve got a store on every corner – if you trip on the sidewalk and fall into the store chances are you’re not gonna get out ’til you buy something.”
Heraud points out that many people buy GM vehicles because they have earned credits on their GM credit cards which they can apply to a new GM vehicle purchase.
2001 Toyota Corolla
Another perennial Canadian favourite is the Toyota Corolla. Last redesigned in 1993 and refreshed in 1998 with crisper styling and a more powerful engine, it is built at a plant in Cambridge, Ontario that has won seven quality awards from J.D. Power and Associates, an independent market research firm. The Corolla is also a five-time winner of the CAA’s Pyramid used car performance award.
“It’s not the sort of car that you’re likely to collect and save for your grandchildren, but it has Toyota’s reliability and is a good value for the money,” says Kenzie.
“This is a classic – a family car,” says Heraud. “The car has no problems, no problems – it has a good reputation which it deserves.” But Heraud thinks the latest models look cheaper than previous models, and top-of-the-line Corollas, Heraud says, are not inexpensive. “They sell for over $20,000.”
Number 8, the Ford Windstar is a long wheelbase minivan like the Dodge Grand Caravan – there is no short wheelbase version.
Banks believes the Windstar is popular because it offers many safety features which are important to families, and is a good value in the marketplace.
Heraud likes the Windstar because it’s pleasant to drive and is “a little bit lower than the other ones, and has more ‘juice’.” However, “it’s very heavy,” says Heraud, “and has poor fuel consumption.”
“Dynamically, the Windstar is not the best of the minivans,” says Kenzie, “but it is certainly spacious, quiet, and there’s lots of room inside.”
2001 Ford Focus ZX3
The ninth best-selling car in Canada, the Ford Focus, was Number One on the Top Ten list shortly after it was introduced in 1999, but has since slipped down the list. The Focus is available in three bodystyles: a four-door sedan, four-door wagon, and two-door hatchback. A new four-door hatchback will be arriving this Fall.
“I’m surprised to see it down at Number Nine,” says Kenzie. “I think it’s a terrific car – it has eye-catching styling, particularly the hatchback models – everyone I know who has one seems to be impressed with it. I guess the only downside in some people’s minds would be some recalls on the car..”
Heraud thinks the Focus’ ‘edgy’ styling is too European for the North American market. “North American buyers are very conservative,” says Heraud.
Ford’s Chris Banks points out that the Focus is doing better than its predecessors, the Contour and Mystique. “It’s cheaper and roomier than those vehicles,” he says.
Number Ten is the Pontiac Sunfire, a compact sedan, coupe and convertible based on the Cavalier platform. Though it has similar powertrains, the Sunfire offers more aggressive exterior and interior styling which appeals to younger buyers.
“It sells for many of the same reasons as the Cavalier,” says Heraud. “But it’s sportier.”
Interestingly, six of Canada’s Top Ten best-sellers are made in Canada (in some cases they’re made in the U.S.A. as well): the Caravan/Grand Caravan, GMC Sierra/Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-Series, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Ford Windstar. Do Canadians like to buy cars made in Canada?
Chris Banks says “No, it’s not a factor.”
Kenzie’s not sure. “Unless you live in Oshawa, Windsor, or Oakville, I don’t think so,” says Kenzie. “But I really don’t know.”