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Car sales up 59% from February

Automakers continue slithering through a hellish market but thelatest Canadian sales numbers offer hope

Automakers continue slithering through a hellish market but the
latest Canadian sales numbers offer hope that the agony is abating, and
they restore General Motors to its traditional industry leadership.

Total
sales were down 15 per cent nationally last month compared with March
2008, according to a tally released Wednesday by DesRosiers Automotive
Consultants.

Analyst Dennis DesRosiers observed that this is
negative but nevertheless "is a significant improvement from the last
few months when sales were down in the mid-20 per cent range."

And
compared with February's abysmal results, last month's sales were
higher by 59 per cent. Car dealers normally start to get busier
seasonally in March, but not usually by nearly that much.

Also on
the bright side, DesRosiers noted that automakers say their low-profit
sales to rental companies and other fleets were down 30 to 40 per cent
from a year ago, "which would mean that retail consumer sales were
likely down only in the single-digit range."

DesRosiers counted March sales of cars, pickups, minivans and SUVs at 127,489, down from 150,024 in March 2008.

General
Motors of Canada, one of the two North American carmakers seeking
billions of dollars in aid from the federal and Ontario governments,
saw its sales fall by 17.6 per cent. That was good enough to return GM
to its usual position as the industry sales leader, after Chrysler
Canada had briefly usurped this status in February, dropping GM to No.
2 for the first month since at least the early 1950s.

Chrysler,
also pleading for taxpayer help to survive, skidded hardest last month
among the Detroit Three with a year-over-year decline of 26.6 per cent.

"Dealers
tell me that the buying public reacted very poorly to the threat to
leave Canada and this likely cost Chrysler some volume," DesRosiers
commented. He was referring to a statement by Chrysler president Tom
LaSorda on March 11 that the automaker might shut its Canadian plants
unless it can slash labour costs, settle a tax dispute and get a
US$2.3-billion loan from Ottawa.

But Chrysler also found hope in
the monthly data, noting that its sales were up 33 per cent from
February and the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan had its strongest-ever
March with 3,775 sales, up four per cent from March 2008.

Ford of Canada matched the general market slide with a 15.1 per cent year-over-year decline.

The
numbers were much better in Canada than in the United States, where
March sales were down 45 per cent for GM, 41 per cent at Ford and 39
per cent for Chrysler. However, those American sales were also up
markedly from February's 27-year-plus low.

Overall, GM Canada
delivered 24,867 vehicles in March, followed by Ford at 17,021; Toyota
including Lexus, down 23 per cent to 15,901; Chrysler at 15,846; and
Honda including Acura, down 22.8 per cent at 12,570.

Next came
Hyundai with a year-over-year sales gain of 25.5 per cent to 8,818,
while South Korean stablemate Kia added 12.6 per cent to 3,555.

DesRosiers
attributed Hyundai's rise to "value pricing, good product and some
smart marketing." But the sales tally coincided with a new call from
Canadian Auto Workers president Ken Lewenza for governments to force
offshore automakers to build more cars here and require Asian markets
to ease exports from North America.

DesRosiers commented that the
Detroit Three "collectively lost market share again in March which is a
continuation of a 15-year trend so this is no surprise."

Notable
in last month's data was strength in high-priced German brands:
Mercedes-Benz sales were up 26 per cent from a year ago at 2,181, BMW
rose eight per cent to 1,711, Audi added 25 per cent to 979 and Porsche
gained 10 per cent to 172.

But Canadian sales by Volkswagen, Germany's biggest automaker, were down almost 11 per cent at 3,156.

Among the premium Japanese nameplates, Toyota's Lexus was up 21 per to 1,363 but Honda's Acura was down 42 per cent at 1,211.

 
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