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Market Insight: Life still left in Aussie large cars

Game on: Holden is now hoping to climb back from record-low sales with the current Commodore as the VF series (left) draws near and work ramps up on an all-new successor from 2017.

Aussie large cars hit record low sales but confidence to rise with new models

12 Feb 2013

THE future of Australian large cars is again front and centre stage after Holden confirmed last Friday that it will build an all-new Commodore in 2016/17, with the bombshell dropped just three days after every Australian-built large car, Commodore included, posted its worst monthly sales result in history.

As the Holden marketing machine moved into overdrive to a level not seen in many years with the official reveal of the VF Commodore last weekend, the ‘lion king’ Mike Devereux revealed that work is well underway in designing and engineering a fifth-generation model that will join the next Cruze small car on its Adelaide production line as one of two new global architectures.

There are suggestions from some Holden insiders that this might be an all-new global rear-drive platform, although the redesigned Commodore could also materialise as a very different model to today’s, based on General Motors’ front-drive mid-size architecture – currently known as Epsilon II – that underpins several vehicles, including the forthcoming Chevrolet/Holden Malibu.

This new mid-size platform and the next iteration of GM’s ‘Delta’ small-car architecture – codenamed D2XX – will both be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of related body styles, which keeps the prospect of a Holden-built SUV alive.

128 center imageFrom top: Holden Commodore Toyota Aurion Toyota Camry Ford Territory.

But the next-generation Commodore confirmation is significant in not only bolstering the new VF series – which a week ago was thought by many to be the last Commodore to be built by Holden – but reflecting positively on all local large cars and the broader industry.

The extent to which it instils confidence in Australian buyers will take a long time to materialise, but the response to VF and its sales over the next four years – and those of the Ford Falcon and Toyota Aurion – will shed plenty of light on how much life is left in the large-car market.

For now, the segment remains in the doldrums.

While imported passenger cars and SUVs fired last month – when the local industry’s all-important fleet sales are traditionally down – the Commodore fell to its lowest-ever monthly total of 1656 new registrations.

This is the first time Commodore has dipped below 2000 sales in a month and marked a fall of 500 units on a year earlier, a fall of 1000 units from the year before, a fall of 1500 units the year before that...

Falcon sales also crashed, to just 778 in January – a figure that similarly marks the lowest monthly sales tally in the nameplate’s 52-year history.

This time last year the industry was lamenting that Falcon had fallen below 1000 for the first time, with 931 sales last January, yet the big Ford then only ‘recovered’ as far as 1431 sales in any given month for the entire year – despite initiatives like the critically acclaimed four-cylinder EcoBoost model.

Stand by for the Blue Oval to crank up its own substantial marketing machine as it reveals its heavily reskinned Falcon later this year – potentially at the Melbourne motor show in June – ahead of the new model’s mid-to-late 2014 sales launch.

Market leader Toyota has also found itself on the wrong end of the record books, with the Aurion making its own major contribution to last month’s local large-car sales freefall with just 227 registrations – down 77 per cent on a year ago and the model’s worst month on record since it was launched in 2006.

Toyota’s Australian-built Camry recorded just 557 sales last month – more than 3000 fewer than in December and 56.8 per cent down on January last year – to relinquish its stranglehold on the medium-car segment (to the new Mazda6, on 750 units) for the first time in seven and a half years.

Ford and Holden’s local utes accounted for 886 units combined last month, Holden’s Cruze small car took a 33 per cent hit with only 1638 units – less than half that of the leading Mazda3 – and its long-wheelbase Caprice found just 59 new homes.

Ford’s biggest-selling local vehicle was once again the Territory SUV, its 1161 units falling just short of segment leadership (to the imported Holden Captiva 7) and illustrating why Holden and Toyota have both discussed adding an SUV into their Australian factories.

While Ford has also experienced drastically reduced sales rates with Territory over the years, it would be an obvious move for the company to expand its SUV production lines here with fresh metal, to resurrect a small-car program and/or turn to another high-volume market segment.

However, the Blue Oval top brass in Dearborn have been the least forthcoming of all the Australian-based manufacturers on the future of their operations here – in Ford’s case this is beyond 2016 – and have confirmed only that the current localised Falcon/Territory/Ute platform will be phased out under its global ‘One Ford’ program.

This raises plenty of doubt over the medium-term future of Ford’s Australian car production, and ongoing uncertainty – as raised by company senior management – over the future of Holden and Toyota’s local operations beyond mid-next decade.

In the meantime, Camry and now Commodore are sure to soldier on, while Ford is obviously not about to deliver any bad news about the future of Falcon with a major upgrade on the horizon.

Holden sold 30,532 Commodores last year, down 24.8 per cent on 2011, while Ford also fell 25 per cent with Falcon to 14,036. Aurion ended the year up 1.8 per cent with 9074 sales.

Record-low January sales are a sign of their ongoing struggle, but this is still a massive year – and one with an air of optimism – for Holden’s large car and the jobs that come with it, and next year we might be saying the same of Ford and the venerable Falcon.

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