Tim O'Brien | Mar 5, 2009

The Overall Market

Yesterday's VFACTS sales figures showing a 21.9 percent decline in February 2009 over 2008, reflect the rapid contraction in the economy. But that bald statistic does not tell the full story of what is happening in the new vehicle market.

New cars sales last year, 2008, got out of the blocks like a sprinter following a very strong 2007. (That year, 2007, you will remember, was the first year that Australian new vehicle sales broke through the 'magic million' barrier.)

The record-busting strength of the first two quarters of 2008, with strong consumer sales and very strong fleet sales, carried the year to a near record result, despite sales slowing markedly in the third and fourth quarters.

So, for an accurate picture of how things are travelling, it's best to skip the hyper-heated years of 2007 and 2008 and look a little further back. Then you will note that February 2009 sales of 70,241 are down, but not screamingly too far off the longer term trend average.

Effectively, vehicle sales have slipped back about five years to 2004 levels, and about 10 percent shy of 2006..

In February 2002, there were 64,795 new vehicle sales; February 2003, 66,735 sales; February 2004, 75,877; February 2005, 81,141; and February 2006, 77,446 new vehicle sales. So, February 2009 is crook in a market that has been growing, but it's not a disaster.

Unless the gloom bug really bites, this year will likely continue to track according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries' (FCAI) projections and notch up around 850,000 sales for the year.

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The 'winners', and the real winners

It is no longer news that Dodge is up 57.5 percent on February last year; Jaguar, up 22.0 percent; Skoda up 7.1 percent; Audi, up 5.4 percent; Hyundai, up 3.5 percent; Mercedes up 2.0 percent; and Fiat, up 1.9 percent. These then are the winners.

Kind of.

When you see a figure like Dodge's 57.5 percent gain in a market down 21.9 percent, you know that something is skewed. (That's the problem with lies, damned lies and statistics.)

A couple in that list were barely bothering the scorer last year; two of them, Dodge and Fiat, have very aggressive cost-cutting marketing campaigns underway (to clear static inventories), and Skoda was a relatively new face in the market with only 56 sales for the month of February 2008.

Of that list, the real winners are Audi, also up 5.4 percent year-to-date, and Hyundai, up 9.3 percent year-to-date.

Also winners in that they have managed to sustain minimal casualties coming off a heated year is Mazda, down just 9.2 percent for the month; Kia, down 9.5 percent (the new Cerato is clearly kicking-in there), and, at a stretch, Renault, down just 9.8 percent and 6.1 percent year-to-date (although also off a low base).

vw-golf

The not-winners, but not-losers

Those brands that should rate 'honourable mentions' for outperforming the overall market are MINI, down just 12.7 percent for the month; Nissan, down 12.9 percent; Volkswagen, down 15.3 percent; Subaru, down 15.5, BMW down 16.4, and Ford, just squeaking onto the 'honourable mentions' list, down 21.4 percent for the month.

Falling outside of that list was, surprisingly, Honda, down 28.2 percent, Holden down 27.1 percent, and Toyota down 31.1 percent. But, again, the bald statistic may not be entirely reliable as a pointer to the fortunes of each over this year.

That very strong sales start to 2008 is distorting the 2009 results of a lot of marques. For its part, Toyota is right at the wrong end of a model cycle. A freshened-up model range, when it arrives, will kick things along for the Big T.

2009-Saab-9-3-SportCombi-XWD

The losers

For some, even damned lies and statistics cannot obscure the depth of the bad news. Saab, surely in crisis, and, ironically, now with the best cars it has had for a decade or more, fell 71.6 percent; while Alfa Romeo, running hot on its heels on a very uncomfortable slope, is down 56.0 percent.

Hardest hit of all, not unsurprisingly, are the super-premium brands. Bentley down 60.0 percent, Aston Martin down 63.6 percent; Lamborghini down 66.7 percent; Lotus down 75.0 percent; Porsche down 50.7 percent and Ferrari down 36.4 percent on February 2008 sales. (Hmm, perhaps it was just stockbrokers and merchant bankers who were filling the order books in those salad days of no tomorrow, and no day of reckoning.)

So, in wrap up, it's not yet time to "ring the bells and bring out the dead".

Sales are down, it's tough, but manufacturers here have been getting production-levels adjusted to reflect buyer demand, and dealers (and importers) are getting inventory down to reduce their risk exposures. That's why there are longer waits on special colour and trim combinations.

It's going to be a bumpy year here, sure, but things are a lot bumpier over the pond.