What has happened to the love affair that once burned so brightly between Canadians and their small cars?
To borrow from Shakespeare, Canadians as a group have ceased to compare small cars to a summer's day. It's winter for little runabouts like the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa and others.
Through the end of June, notes DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, subcompact sales in Canada have plunged 13.6 per cent. By the way, compact car sales in Canada are up a piddling 1.2 per cent. What Canadian car buyers have found more lovely than a summer's day (thanks, Will) are hulking pickup trucks (up 14 per cent), large luxury sport-utilities (up 18.6 per cent) and compact sport-utes (luxurious ones up 18 per cent, regular ones up 10 per cent.
This at a time when pump prices are wicked. You would think penny-pinching Canadians would be flocking to what is without question the best crop of subcompacts ever – and getting better. Last week, according to MJ Ervin and Associates, a litre of regular was selling on average for 148.2 in Vancouver, and in Toronto 132.5. Surely this is when Canadians should be leaping over each other into showrooms stuffed with small, affordable grocery-getters that get stunning fuel economy, start at $14,000 or less in many cases and come available with high-end extras like navigation and Bluetooth.
Nope. The latest figures I have from DesRosiers show Fiesta sales off nearly 27 per cent this year. Now the Fiesta is a terrific little runabout, sold as a hatchback or sedan with a starting price of $13,999. It's a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and right now comes with an Employee Pricing discount of $530 and the 1.5-litre, 120-horsepower engine gets 6.9 litres/100 km in the city. What's not to love?
Yet the sales numbers suggest most Canadians are ignoring the Fiesta. This car is something of a sad wallflower at the new-car dance. Oh, well. This fall, a completely updated 2014 Fiesta is heading to showrooms. Perhaps more Canadians will escort it onto the dance floor.
The Fiesta once had a spot among Canada's top 10 best-selling cars, but no more. The only subcompact there today is the Hyundai Accent – with sales down 24.2 per cent. Truth be told, the Accent is barely holding on to a top 10 spot, currently ranking No. 9.
Ford has sold more Fusion mid-size cars than Hyundai Accents – 11,303 to 10,249 – even though the least expensive Fusion ($22,499) lists for $9,000 more than the cheapest Accent ($13,399).
And still the car companies keep coming with excellent runabouts. Consider the all-new 2014 Nissan Versa Note. Now, don't confuse the Versa Note hatchback with the uninspiring Versa sedan, sales of which for the first third of this year were off some 35 per cent. The Versa Note, says Nissan Canada's top product guy, Tim Franklin, is "stylish, roomy and fuel-efficient."
The Versa Note starts at $13,348 and, for that, you get not just fuel economy, but a full AM/FM/CD audio system with auxiliary hookup, power and heated side mirrors, second-row heater ducts and a rear window defroster. No stripper.
This hatch also looks slick, rides quite nicely and gets a combined 5.5 litres/100 km – which is better than the Fiesta (6.0 combined), Toyota Yaris (6.1 combined), Accent (6.3 combined), Chevrolet Sonic (6.3 combined), Fit (6.3 combined) and Kia Rio (6.4 combined).
This Nissan seats four adults, has an adjustable cargo floor and, if you want ritzy features, you can get Bluetooth streaming audio, voice recognition, hands-free texting and even Google services. And still keep the sticker price at just about $19,000. I mean, the loaded Versa Note is a luxury car in a pint-sized package.
Toyota's Yaris is another little one looking for love. Yaris sales, notes DesRosiers, were down a staggering 40.3 per cent through the first third of this year. In a second swipe at fuel-efficient city cars, sales of the subcompact Prius C hybrid were off 12.6 per cent. The Yaris may have a pricing problem. Where the Versa Note hatch starts at $13,348, the Yaris four-door hatch has a base price of $14,890. Even the self-proclaimed "epic reliability" of the Yaris seems to fall short when buyers are thinking dollars and cents.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rules that govern the lovelorn subcompact. Sales of Honda's Fit are up more than 50 per cent, for instance, and Kia's Rio has jumped nearly 40 per cent for the first third of the year. Now why is that?
The Fit seems to have gathered steam about the time Honda Canada began importing this hatchback from a factory in China, rather than high-cost Japan. And the Rio in showrooms now was reinvented only last year and to considerable acclaim. If the new, new thing sells best, then Honda should be excited about an all-new Fit coming within the year, at a plant slated to open in Mexico next spring. At that point, Fit pricing might actually go down.
But will it matter to most Canadians? Consider some numbers. Canadians buy four times more compact cars than subcompacts – to date 196,278 compacts to 50,841 subcompacts. And that four-to-one ratio won't likely change.
With interest rates still low, the monthly payment on a compact – bigger, more powerful – is only a few dollars more than a similarly loaded sub.
The subcompact buyer can also consider a two- to four-year-old used car – likely something quite large, such as a mid-size sedan with a reasonably fuel-thrifty four-cylinder engine. The used market has plenty of their ilk. Of course, all bets change if fuel prices take another big spike. On top of that, government regulators are demanding that auto companies push into new fuel economy frontiers that will surely give a boost to super small cars with little engines this sip, sip, sip fuel.
So while the love affair has gone winter -old, spring eventually comes even in the furthest reaches of the Great White North.
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