by Greg Wilson

2000 SVT Contour
2000 Ford SVT Contour

What do the 2000 Ford Contour, Oldsmobile Cutlass, Dodge Stratus, Mercury Sable and Mitsubishi Galant have in common? Answer: All are cars sold in the United States, but none is available in Canada. And these are just a few examples of the growing list of cars and light trucks that don’t make it north of the U.S.-Canada border.

The exclusions include all the models of one major manufacturer (Mitsubishi), about a dozen “duplicate” models (such as the Mercury Sable, a clone of the Ford Taurus), and several low-volume “niche” vehicles. As well, many of the vehicles that do come north offer fewer trim levels, or options packages, than their U.S. counterparts. The result? Despite the arrival of Korean automakers Daewoo and Kia in recent years, Canadians have fewer choices in the automotive marketplace. And as consolidation in the auto industry continues, our selection may become smaller still.

For this model year, two complete lines vanished when Ford of Canada dropped Mercury and DaimlerChrysler eliminated Plymouth (as well as cars sold under the Dodge brand). It meant Canadians could no longer buy such vehicles as the Mercury Sable, Plymouth Breeze and Voyager and Dodge Stratus and Avenger. However, their near-twins – the Ford Taurus, Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Cirrus and Sebring – remain available.

2000 Mercury Mountaineer
2000 Mercury Mountaineer

Three Canadian Ford models were eliminated entirely for the 2000 model year: the Ford Escort and Contour and Mercury Villager. These vehicles are still available in the U.S. For Ford, sales numbers were the deciding factor. Ford of Canada’s product information manager, Chris Banks, says it made no sense to offer products that were very similar and, in the case of some Mercury models, sold at low volumes. Former Mercury dealers, who already sold Ford vans and trucks as well as the compact Escort, now sell Ford vehicles exclusively.

“Over 85 per cent of the Mercury dealers’ sales were Ford-branded products before the change,” Mr. Banks notes. DaimlerChrysler says it dropped Plymouth because it wanted to simplify its lineup and raise the profile of its remaining models. It will drop Plymouth in the U.S. in 2002.

“Retail and product advertising will concentrate efforts on fewer nameplates,” DaimlerChrysler Canada’s president, Ed Brust, said last year. “This new product lineup will allow us to strengthen the awareness of our award-winning products.”

2000 Oldsmobile Bravada
2000 Oldsmobile Bravada

Differences in retail structures explain why we don’t see many duplicate models. The Oldsmobile Cutlass is a restyled, U.S.-only version of the Chevrolet Malibu. The Oldsmobile Bravada is a high-end version of the Chevrolet Blazer. The Chevrolet Prizm is a restyled version of the Toyota Corolla, built in a unique GM/Toyota plant in California. The Mercury Mountaineer is a luxury version of the Ford Explorer. The Honda Passport is a rebadged version of the Isuzu Rodeo. And the Toyota Landcruiser is a less-expensive version of the Lexus LX470.

General Motors operates multi-line dealerships in Canada, selling Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs at some outlets and Pontiacs and Buicks at others. In the U.S., those brands are sold at stand-alone dealerships. “We believe we would be competing with ourselves if we were to sell both Malibu and Cutlass at the same Chev/Olds store,” says Phil Kling, product communications manager at GM Canada. “Instead, we have chosen to market only the more popular and affordable Malibu in Canada. The U.S.A. has stand-alone Oldsmobile dealerships and therefore needs the Cutlass to complete their portfolio of products. The same concept holds for the Blazer/Bravada and the Prism/Cavalier/Metro.”

Toyota MR2 Spyder
Toyota MR2 Spyder

Some U.S. vehicles aren’t sold here because their manufacturers believe Canada is too small to justify the expense of marketing a low-volume vehicle. Among them: Audi’s A4 Avant station wagon, the Isuzu Amigo and Isuzu Vehicross four-wheel-drive vehicles, the Lexus SC300 and SC400,
Toyota’s MR2 sports car and Nissan’s Altra EV electric car.

One prominent Japanese automaker, Mitsubishi, isn’t represented at all in Canada. In the U.S., it sells the Mirage subcompact, Galant midsize sedan, Diamante luxury sedan, Eclipse sporty coupe, 3000GT sports car and the Montero and Montero Sport sport-utility vehicles. Mitsubishi cars were available here in the 1980s and ’90s under Dodge, Plymouth and Eagle nameplates. The Mirage was sold here as the Dodge Colt, the Galant as the Dodge 2000 GTX, the Eclipse as the Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser and the 3000GT as the Dodge Stealth. As well, the Eagle Vista/Dodge Colt Wagon and Dodge Raider SUV were both built by Mitsubishi.

2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder
2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder

When Chrysler’s relationship with Mitsubishi soured in the early ’90s, the flow of Chrysler-badged Mitsubishis ceased. Mitsubishi opened an office in Canada in 1997 with the intention of selling cars under its own banner by 1999 or 2000. It had to scuttle those plans when the parent Mitsubishi company posted its first loss in 26 years. “We figured it was better to get our own house in order before venturing north,” says Kyle Bazemore, manager of public affairs for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America. Mr. Bazemore believes Mitsubishi will be back. “Obviously Canada is a very important automotive market … and we need to be there. And we will. The timetable is indefinite just yet, but I know that our management wants to be selling cars there as soon as we can.”

Differences between Canadian and American cars aren’t confined to brands and models. There are often significant differences between trim levels and options across the border. The popular Honda Civic is a good example. In Canada, the Civic Sedan comes in two trim levels, LX and EX; in the U.S.,
it comes in three levels, DX, LX and EX. The Civic Coupe comes in DX, Si and SiR trim here, but in the U.S. the Coupe is available in DX, EX, Si and HX, the latter a unique model with a continuously variable transmission. Even when trim levels are the same, there is often a difference in standard
and optional equipment. For example, in Canada, the Honda Civic hatchback CX has a standard AM/FM radio and a driver’s-side air bag. In the U.S. the radio is optional and both driver and passenger air bags are standard. In Canada, the Ford Focus Wagon SE has a standard five-speed manual transmission; in the U.S., the same vehicle has a standard four-speed automatic transmission. In Canada the 2000 Nissan Xterra sport-utility vehicle comes standard with V-6 engine and full power options. In the U.S., there’s a four-cylinder base model with a lower level of standard equipment.

Automakers say the U.S. market gets more choice because it is bigger – and richer. “Americans have a gigantic market in which there are no barriers to the extra costs of offering options, more models and more trim choice,” says Max Wickens, manager of product communications for Nissan Canada. “In Canada, carmakers have realized they simply cannot afford to do this – if they are to remain in business. That’s why you see ‘packaging’ as the only way to obtain certain options.”

GM’s Phil Kling says price-sensitive Canadians demand different packaging. “Since Canadians have less disposable income than their American counterparts and are therefore more price-sensitive, we often package our vehicles in a way that allows us to price our vehicles more competitively.”

Ford’s Chris Banks agrees. “Canada is a very price-conscious market and you will find we equip the cars to be price-competitive with other Canadian products in that class. Things like a block heater are standard in all Canadian Ford products, while optional in the U.S.”

Dennis Desrosiers of Desrosiers Automobile Consultants says Canada’s smaller market size cannot support the same products as the U.S. “Our geography is bigger, but we’ve got one-tenth of the population. The U.S. has 30 cities as big, or bigger than Toronto,” says Mr. DesRosiers.

Adds Nissan’s Max Wickens: “The U.S. is a ‘two-dimensional’ market where they ship cars north, south, east and west and can do so on a daily basis. Canada is essentially a skimpy one-dimensional market – east/west, scattered the length of the Trans-Canada Highway.”

Canada also has different regulations that can discourage automakers from bringing in low-volume models, says Mr. DesRosiers. “We have our own bumper regulations, daytime running lights, metric instrumentation – it’s very, very expensive for companies to change their vehicles to meet Canadian
regulation standards.” Mr. DesRosiers believes automakers are becoming more practical by realizing the constraints of operating in Canada. “I don’t make a big deal out of the fact that we have fewer cars than they do – we’re a smaller market.”

Still, because the differences in the Canadian market aren’t always reflected in the automotive media, Canadian car-shoppers can have trouble finding accurate information. American car magazines, syndicated newspaper columns and Internet sites often provide only U.S. prices, for example, and don’t offer metric specifications. The constant cross-border barrage of U.S. television and radio advertising adds to the confusion.

Fortunately, Canadian information is available in newsstand publications such as the CAA’s Autopinion 2000, Carguide, World of Wheels and Le Guide De L’Auto, and annuals such as Lemon-Aid and the Road Report. Among Web sites with Canadian automotive information are www.Autos.ca, Carclick.com, Autonet.ca (World of Wheels), APA.ca, Carcostcanada.com, Carguideca.com and AJAC.org (Automobile Journalists Association of Canada).

Finally, despite our fewer choices, Canadian shoppers do have access to one model not available in the U.S. The Acura 1.6EL is a restyled, better-equipped version of the Honda Civic sedan. It’s designed to be a volume seller for Honda’s upscale division in Canada.

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