Modest December auto sales recovery caps a disappointing year

December 2021 sales of approximately 102,900 new vehicles in Canada were closer to pre-pandemic norms than at any time since March, down just 4.5% from a year earlier and 6.1% from 2019. But that modest recovery was too little, too late to salvage much joy from the 2021 sales year, which started strongly but has been in decline since the second quarter.

Overall 2021 sales of 1,638,398 new units, as estimated by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants (DAC), were up 6.6% from 2020’s pandemic-depleted level, but they were down 14.4% from 2019, the last full year of a “normal” market and 17.6% from the market high of more than 2-million units in 2017. That result leaves 2021 ranked 11th in all-time annual sales, according to DAC.

While 2020’s depressed results (1,537,388 total sales) were limited primarily by restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2021’s numbers reflect not only a carry-over pandemic effect but subsequent supply-side shortages, particularly those of semiconductor chips, on a global scale.

The up-side is that these results are far below the market potential, which promises significant sales improvements ahead once full production is restored.

However, as Rebekah Young of Scotiabank Economics cautions, “the sudden surge in omicron cases threatens to stall the nascent recovery in auto production in the early months of 2022, which would, in turn, (negatively) impact auto sales.”

Consequently, Scotiabank anticipates “soft-but-not-negative” first-quarter 2022 sales, followed by strengthening sales and inventory improvements over the remainder of the year, with a full-year forecast of 1.75-million units – “still well-below fundamental demand.”

Young adds the caveat that “there is considerable uncertainty to this outlook including the risk that first quarter sales retreat once again before a prolonged recovery begins.”

Light truck domination strengthens

The long decline of passenger car sales in favour of “light trucks” (pickups, vans and utility vehicles, including crossovers) continued in 2021 with passenger cars accounting for just 18.8% of the market, while light trucks claimed a record-high 81.8% – a 1.3% shift further toward trucks from the end of 2020.

A total of 1,330,229 light trucks were sold in 2021, an increase of 8.3% from 2020, while sales of 308,169 passenger cars represented a decline of 0.1%.

Turbulence among the top three

For the 13th consecutive year, Ford remained Canada’s best-selling automobile brand in 2021, with 243,447 units sold – an increase of 1.7% from 2020, though a decline of 15.4% from 2019. That performance lagged behind the market average (+6.6% from 2020), however, cutting Ford’s market share by 0.7% from a year ago, to 14.9%.

General Motors maintained its now-traditional second-place ranking for the year with 217,475 sales, down 0.5% from 2020 and 15.3% from 2019. As with Ford, that performance fell short of the overall market average, costing GM 0.9% in market share, down to 13.3%.

The big change in the top three was Toyota’s ascendancy to third place, with 199,308 vehicles sold, an increase of 16.8% from 2020, albeit a decline of 5.8% from 2019. As a result, Toyota’s market share jumped by 1.1% from a year ago, to 12.2% – the greatest share increase in the industry.

In fact, an argument could be made that Toyota actually ranked second on an apples-to-apples group basis, for if Lexus numbers are added to the Toyota group, which is how the Detroit Three numbers are presented, their combined sales surpassed GM’s.

Stellantis (formerly FCA) fell to fourth in the rankings, with 161,482 sales, down 9.7% from 2020 and 27.6% from 2019. Consequently, Stellantis gave up 1.7% of market share – the greatest decline in the industry – falling to 9.9%.

In its usual fifth place, Honda’s 131,254 sales surpassed its 2020 results by 4.2%, while falling 22.4% short of its 2019 numbers and losing 0.2% of market share from last year, to 8.0%.

Koreans keep gaining

Hyundai remained in sixth place but closed to within 5,000 units of Honda in fifth, with 126,610 units sold, an increase of 12.7% from 2020 and a decline of just 5.0% from 2019. That improvement boosted the Korean market leader’s share a further 0.4% from last year, to 7.7%.

Nissan continued to hold seventh-place in the rankings with 92,567 vehicles sold, an improvement of 12.0% from a difficult 2020 but a decline of 25.2% from 2019. That year-over-year improvement increased Nissan’s market share by 0.2% from 2020, to 5.6%.

Still in eighth place, Kia’s 79,198 2021 sales were up 9.3% from a year ago and 3.4% from 2019 – one of the few brands to surpass 2019’s numbers. That strong performance yielded just a 0.1% gain in year-over-year market share, to 4.8%.

Mazda maintained its ninth-place ranking with a 7.7% sales increase over 2020 to 62,201 units, marginally ahead of the market average and down just 6.4% from 2019. As a result, Mazda’s market share held steady at 3.8%.

Volkswagen sold 60,299 new vehicles in 2021, a 21.8% increase from 2020, though still 12.8% behind 2019, to regain its previous 10th-place position from Subaru. That big year-over improvement kicked VW’s market share up 0.5% to 3.7% – the second-greatest increase in the industry, behind only Toyota.

Subaru fell back to 11th in the rankings, in spite of increasing its year-over-year sales by 9.1% to 56,780 vehicles, down just 1.1% from 2019. Its market share increased by 0.1% to 3.5%.

Mercedes-Benz maintained 12th place and its luxury-brand leadership with 36,240 vehicles sold, up 2.4% from 2019 and down 20.9% from 2019, losing 0.1% of market share in the process, down to 2.2%.

BMW regained second-place among luxury brands, ahead of Audi and Lexus, in that order.

Winners and losers

In terms of percent change in sales from 2020, the big “winners” for 2021 were: Genesis (+212.5%); Maserati +70.9%); Mitsubishi (+46.9%); Lexus (+24.4%); and Volkswagen (+23.5%).

Compared to their pre-pandemic 2019 numbers, the big “winners” were: Genesis (+199.6%); Volvo (+9.3%); Kia (+3.4%); Lexus (+1.4%); and Porsche (+1.3%).

The biggest “losers” among active brands, relative to 2020, were: Jaguar (-13.9%); FCA/Stellantis (-9.7%); Mini (-3.0%); General Motors (-0.5%); and Infiniti (+0.1%).

Compared to 2019 numbers, the greatest losers were: Jaguar (-49.2%); Infiniti (-46.8%); Mini (-29.0%); FCA/Stellantis (-27.6%); and Nissan (-25.2%).

It should be noted that the sales figures reported here are reconciled quarterly by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants (DAC) based on sales reported by manufacturers.

About Gerry Malloy

Gerry Malloy is one of Canada's best known, award-winning automotive journalists.

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