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Auto makers hit record month in Canada as U.S. sales drag

Jaguar Land Rover Automotive PLC brand convertibles and sports utility vehicles (SUV) sit on display for sale at MCL Motors Cars luxury dealership in Vancouver, July 28, 2016.

Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Vehicle sales diverged in Canada and the United States last month, with auto makers tallying another record in Canada and U.S. sales falling.

Canadian sales raced ahead 7 per cent to 187,450 in March, surpassing the record set a year earlier and marking only the seventh time this decade that sales have topped 180,000 in a single month. In the past, numbers above that level have only been reached in April and May, which are the heart of the crucial spring-selling season.

The record month in Canada was propelled by luxury auto makers – several of which outperformed the market – and General Motors of Canada Co. was the sales leader in the month and posted a 23 per cent gain.

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The rebound in the Alberta economy from low oil prices helped the overall market, said Bank of Nova Scotia economist Carlos Gomes, whose specialty is the auto sector.

Continued economic growth in British Columbia and Ontario also helped. Those two provinces are No. 1 and No. 4 in sales among the provinces.

"You have very strong wealth effects that continue to propel the luxury segment," Mr. Gomes said, notably in British Columbia and Ontario. That wealth effect comes from surging house prices and a strong stock market, he said.

Among luxury auto makers, Jaguar Land Rover Canada posted the best month in its history with sales that topped 2,000 for the first time. They were powered by the new F-Pace sport-utility vehicle, the first entry by Jaguar into the hottest market segment.

Porsche Cars Canada Inc. had the best March in its history with a 17 per cent increase.

GM Canada said last month was its best March since 2008.

Honda Canada Inc. reported the best sales month in its history.

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In the United States, the seasonally adjusted annual-selling rate (SAAR) is estimated to have fallen to 16.7 million units, below the 17 million mark it had maintained for several months.

That, and growing inventory levels at some auto makers, bolster the theory that the U.S. market has hit a plateau.

"It sure feels like it," said Jeff Schuster, senior vice-president of forecasting at industry consulting firm LMC Automotive.

"Right now, we are calling for 2017 as a few thousand over 2016," Mr. Schuster said. "But that may have evaporated with the performance in March."

Ford Motor Co. chief economist Emily Kolinski Morris said that the auto maker believes U.S. sales are hitting a plateau at a level of about 17.5 million on a SAAR basis, which means during some months the market will be up and in some months down.

"We're not seeing huge growth in the market, but it's operating in the mid-17s, really healthy level," Mark LaNeve, Ford's vice-president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said on a conference call with analysts and reporters.

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General Motors Co. said its estimate of the March U.S. SAAR was 16.7 million. The largest Detroit-based auto maker also showed inventories sitting at 98 days worth of vehicles on hand, well above the 60-day to 70-day range the industry considers healthy.

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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