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Market Insight: Holden Commodore defends its turf

A bout of attrition: The monthly sales figures of Australia’s top five sellers for 2011 reflect the numerous factors that have impacted the market this year.

Holden large car hangs onto top sales spot in Australia as challengers circle

14 Nov 2011

THE prize fight for bragging rights as the top-selling vehicle in Australia has turned into a fascinating contest in 2011, with five serious contenders shaping up for the crown in the last two months of the year.

Although battered and bruised, the reigning champion – and undefeated for the past 15 years – is up against the ropes defending against at least one smaller and faster challenger, but the home-bred slugger will not go down without a mighty fight.

Holden’s venerable Commodore may have a glass jaw – in this case, Australia’s fading love affair with large cars – but in its corner is a proud and powerful marketing machine that will not countenance defeat until the final scores are posted in the first week of January.

Like the recently departed ‘Smokin’ Joe’ Frazier, though, the Commodore’s days are surely numbered.

The upstart Mazda3 was carried into this contest by private buyers and is the most likely candidate to land the winning punch, but there are other contenders with a shot at the title – including two veterans from the powerful Toyota camp, the ever-consistent HiLux and Corolla.

And we cannot forget the fast-developing newcomer – Holden’s own Cruze small car – which may be giving its big brother a start, but goes into the final two months of the showdown with the advantage of finally getting a popular hatchback variant from this month.

128 center imageFrom top Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Toyota HiLux, Holden Cruze hatch and Hyundai i30.

Korea’s leading contender, the Hyundai i30, is coming from too far back and looks set to finish as ‘best of the rest’ ahead of the Nissan Navara twins, the ageing Toyota Camry, the explosive Volkswagen Golf and the tragic figure of the once mighty Ford Falcon.

Ironically, Holden’s chances of hanging on to the 2011 sales title could be assisted, at least subconsciously, by its challengers.

Mazda Australia for one is reluctant to be branded as the company that toppled the great Aussie champion, fearing potential media and consumer backlash. This is a bout it would probably prefer to lose.

“You wouldn’t want to be the one that brought down such an Australian icon, would you?” a Mazda Australia insider once confided. “At least, we wouldn’t.” Commodore (down 8.9 per cent YTD) has won five of the 10 rounds held so far this year. After its usual slow start in January – when fleet buyers are still lying on the beach – the big Holden topped the sales charts in February, March, April and May, then again in July.

Finishing second three more times before inexplicably dropping to fourth in October (down 20.3 per cent despite the launch of a model upgrade and extra-value pricing) consistency has been the Commodore’s strength this year and sees it clinging on to top place year-to-date by just 371 units – 34,990 sales to 34,624 for the Mazda3 (up 6.2 per cent YTD).

Mazda’s top-selling model has had a rollercoaster year, dipping slightly in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan before bouncing back strongly through winter – winning the sales race with industry-best scores of 4212 in June and 4234 in August – as dealers cleared run-out stock.

The facelifted Mazda3 lobbed at the end of September, along with lower prices and extra equipment, but even a 24.6 per cent lift in October over the same month in 2010 could not prevent it being beaten for the month by the resurgent Toyota Corolla and HiLux.

Corolla has been the hardest hit by the Japanese natural disaster of the top model contenders and is down 10.6 per cent YTD. Having won the opening round in January, Corolla supplies dried up quickly following the March earthquake, dropping the popular small car well behind its main rivals from April all the way through to July as Toyota’s anticipated production rebound failed to materialise.

Once production did recover – and Toyota Australia launched into a two-month ‘Toyotathon’ sales attack – Corolla soared back into contention, winning both September (up 13.6 per cent) and October (up 28.2 per cent) to sneak back ahead of Cruze for fourth place YTD (28,737 to 28,608). And that might be as high as it gets at the end of the year.

Toyota stablemate HiLux, which has consistently dominated the ute market and went close – just 142 sales – to unseating the Commodore back in March, seemingly has too much ground to make up before the final bell rings on December 31, having posted 31,168 sales YTD (down 5.9 per cent despite an increase of 16.0 per cent in October).

While HiLux avoided the tsunami fallout because it is sourced from Thailand, the savage October floods that have almost stalled production of all the Thai-built SUVs will almost certainly end the charge of Toyota’s second challenger. Not so long ago it seemed that all the cards fell Toyota’s way.

And that leaves the great white hope – Holden’s Cruze small car (up 21.6 per cent YTD after a 31.4 per cent rise last month). As well as being swept along by the trend to small cars, the recent launch of the locally designed hatchback version will surely add to the sales momentum built up by Cruze, despite being available only in supposedly less-popular sedan form all year.

It may be too late for Cruze to come from fifth place YTD to challenge Commodore and Mazda3 for the 2011 crown, but look out for a big challenge when the challengers step up for the 2012 showdown.

If Commodore manages to hang onto its sales crown this year, there are many who believe that the David to finally fell Goliath in 2012 will be Holden’s own Cruze rather than the Japanese Mazda3.

Even Mazda’s corner workers may be relieved if that’s how this bloody battle ultimately pans out.

Top-selling models Jan - Oct 2011
Holden Commodore 34,995
Mazda3 34,624
Toyota HiLux 31,168
Toyota Corolla 28,737
Holden Cruze 28,608
Hyundai i30 24,853
Nissan Navara 18,476
Toyota Camry 16,659
Volkswagen Golf 16,606
Ford Falcon 15,882

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