By on May 2, 2012

What do Buick, Volvo, Infiniti, Mini, Cadillac, Lincoln, Suzuki and Scion have in common? All were outsold by Fiat in Canada last month.

Sales analyst Tim Cain uncovered the data during his monthly sales research, and data shows gradual increases this year for the 500 in the United States. In Canada, the gains are even better, with Canadians taking to the small, stylish compact car, warts and all. The upcoming 500L should be an equally strong success, and the Punto replacement due at the end of 2013 should provide a strong challenge in the highly competitive compact segment.

A few years ago, while having lunch with a VW Canada sales executive, I was told that VW would have brought the Polo to Canada long ago, but the homologation process (practically identical to the United States) made it difficult to justify. The sales were there, but the added cost of bringing it up comply with various regulations wouldn’t make it feasible. On the other hand, the Polo was sold in Australia, which had a comparable population, more expensive cars and looser regulations.

We all know Canadians love small cars, hatchbacks and European brands (though, to be fair, the best-selling vehicle is the Ford F-Series). And the country’s higher gas prices add a further incentive to purchase small, fuel-efficient cars. Although journalists  and enthusiasts in both Canada and the United States have long asked for European compact cars (especially diesels) to make their way over to North America, there may finally be a business case for doing so in Canada.

With news that Mitsubishi will bring their stripped-down Mirage (meant for Thailand and other emerging markets) to Canada but not necessarily the U.S, it’s prudent to start looking around for other candidates. The new tie-up between General Motors and PSA yields the most enticing fruit. The Fiat 500’s success, in my opinion, comes from a perceived premium image versus, say, a Chevrolet Sonic or Toyota Yaris, and a comparable sticker price.

So why not something like the Citroen DS line or the Peugeot 208? The DS line, supposedly Citroen’s premium small car line, could take the fight to everything from the Hyundai Elantra to the VW Golf/Jetta. Citroen execs are even on record about bringing their cars to Canada as far back as 2006. Even SEAT was rumored to be coming in 1994, although such whisperings are now largely the stuff of legend. The 500s two-door body style and small size effectively limits it to a niche category. But the bigger, 4-door Citroens with their increased cargo and passenger room, more powerful engines and larger footprint would be able to attract a whole new type of buyer, while battling established players like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Accent and Volkswagen Golf.

The Francophone angle would play well in Quebec, which comprises a quarter of Canada’s auto market and loves compact, fuel-efficient cars (and stick shifts). In Canada as a whole, diesels are much more widely accepted than the United States, and the fuel is often a few cents cheaper than gasoline. Mercedes-Benz SUVs are widely purchased with BlueTec engines, suggesting that even in the premium segment, consumers are open to the idea of an alternative fuel that isn’t a hybrid.

There are undoubtedly a large number of issues that would prevent near-term sales of new European brands. But it may be something worth examining in the intermediate, especially with the return of Alfa Romeo – a brand that should do even better in Canada, given that it has a wider range of products than Fiat, and the requisite Italian cred. Alfa Romeo also has a distinctive advantage in that Fiat and Chrysler are already here on the ground. Having seen a small sliver of what it took just to establish Kia in Canada (my father acted as their legal representation during those years), it stands to reason that setting up Peugeot, Citroen or any other European brand from scratch would be similarly daunting.

Ironically, Renault, with the backing of Nissan may be best positioned to return here (at least on paper), having sold cars in Canada as late as the 1980’s. Nissan has a strong dealer network, and a full-range of Renault cars (a mix of Dacias and Renaults, which would suit Canada well) are already sold in Mexico. Alas, Carlos Ghosn is pretty adamant that Canada and the US won’t see these products. GM and PSA could very well come to the same conclusion, preferring to sell the Spark, Sonic and Cruze. Hopefully we’ll see a more diverse product mix in the future, even if the odds aren’t on our side.

 

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38 Comments on “Editorial: With Fiat Sales Soaring In Canada, Is It Time For More European Small Cars?...”


  • avatar
    86er

    They didn’t sell any Buicks last month, they sold a handful of Opels.

    These FIATs have the cuteness/novelty factor going for them. While we’ve done a lot of hand-wringing about the alleged murder of the automobile at the hands of “Generation Y”, rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated, as we don’t all live in major centres.

    That said, if one must purchase an automobile, wouldn’t it be nice to have one that comes in cheerful colours like these crowdcans do? It’s just like accessorizing your smartphone, I s’pose…

    • 0 avatar

      The Fiat seems to have broad demographic appeal, not just among Gen Y. Besides, the hand-wringing is about how that ISN’T true ;)

      • 0 avatar
        86er

        For starters, it has more classic lines, not looking like an angry insect like most others in its class.

        Have you heard the exhaust note? I never spent too much time around old FIATs, but that’s what I imagine they sounded like.

      • 0 avatar
        Advance_92

        I have heard an Abarth with a prototype ‘performance’ exhaust back in January and it did sound grand. That said I think the design angle is spot on. The 500 and L work for the same reason s the xB did; you can see out of them.

      • 0 avatar
        ciddyguy

        Advance_92,

        As for the Fiat 500, definitely, you CAN see out of them pretty well and for a car that sits up high, at least in the sport guise, it rides and corners fairly flat and has almost a go cart like handling characteristic and yes, the exhaust note is pretty nice for a little 4 pot mill, way better sounding than my ’03 Protege5.

        Plus, it’s a hella fun little car to drive and if the money had been there, I’d have bought one instead of a nearly decade old Mazda. That said, I love my Mazda, so there.

  • avatar
    Boff

    In the spirit of the current Conservative gubmint’s zeal to cut costs and bureaucracy, I suggest simply scrapping the current homologation apparatus and just going with what Germany (or better yet the UK) say is OK.

    • 0 avatar
      MrGreenMan

      We’d like to see that in America. It hurts North American production to have to produce different cars for North America and the rest of the world; given that both our southern neighbors Mexico and Ontario are big places where “Detroit” auto makes cars, it would be a boon all the way around.

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      The European lighting standards are so far ahead of the US it’s not even funny.

      • 0 avatar

        Is this way we don’t see any of the nicer looking projector headlamps in our cars? Because that truly annoys me (see CR-V, Focus, Fiesta, etc.)

      • 0 avatar
        ciddyguy

        Echid,

        Projectors DO exist in the US, the Fiat 500, for example has them, and they are bi-halogen, which means a moveable shutter changes the light beam from low to high when you need it.

        Many cars, including many US made cars have projectors for the low beam and a standard parabolic optical reflector housing for the high beam when using the quad headlamp design, otherwise, a bi-halogen, or bi-xenon projector is used to do both functions in a dual lamp setup.

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry Ciddy, I think you mistook my comment for me thinking projectors didn’t exist here. If you have a look at my profile pic you will see that the picture I have is of the headlight of my Outback, which is of course a projector headlight.

        I’m of course aware there are a lot of cars that have them. You basically can’t get a luxury car without them, usually in xenon form. Mazda made the decision a few years ago to feature them in their designs (which is when I first started to appreciate them in budget-end cars). I just find that there are some vehicles that benefit hugely appearance-wise, especially Hondas, that come off as cheap-looking otherwise. I also find that, even in halogen form, their lighting seems superior.

        And I’ve noted the 500s projectors on several occasions, as I feel they improve the front end significantly.

      • 0 avatar
        ciddyguy

        Sorry Echid, didn’t even realize that was what it was, your projector headlight…

        Anyway, yeah, they DO seem to create a really good, even beam spread. I got lucky in that while my Mazda Protege5 doesn’t have projectors, they ARE quite good none the less, the beam is wide and even and reasonably bright for halogens, while they may not be quite as good as a pair of projectors, they ARE way better than the reflector optics I had on my 92 Ford Ranger by a mile.

  • avatar
    Feds

    How about just more Fiats? Where is my 4×4 Panda!!!

    I hope fiat has massive success in Canada and brings the full line. A handfull of twin-airs, Qubos and Doblos will do much to brighten up the automotive landscape around here.

  • avatar

    I’m disappointed Fiat500’s don’t have a technology package as cool as the Dart, but, at least, they make more sense than a Smart Fortwo.

  • avatar

    One of my site’s members who lives in Quebec suggested to me that the large number of people of Italian descent in the area (20% of the total in Greater Montreal?) was a major factor. He noted that there are 14 FIAT dealers in the Montreal area–twice as many as there are for Honda. But is this a factor to begin with?

    • 0 avatar
      PenguinBoy

      I have no idea – but subjectively, it seems you see a lot of 500s in the Montreal area. They look really good in the Old Town!

    • 0 avatar
      Sinistermisterman

      I see quite a few 500’s around Vancouver these days (almost on par with the number of Mini’s). Most of them are piloted by young Asian females… so I don’t think the Italian factor counts for much!

    • 0 avatar

      Being twinned with Chrysler doesn’t hurt either. The demographics may have something to do with it, but Montreal is the kind of place where the 500 would be a hit with or without an Italian community.

    • 0 avatar
      ZekeToronto

      The Toronto suburb of Woodbridge (and Vaughan in general) is home to a lot of Italian-Canadians and it’s rife with 500s as well.

  • avatar
    PenguinBoy

    There might be a market for more Euro style small cars here, but with VW, the Euro Fords, and now Fiat I’m not sure the market would be big enough for French cars as well.

    It is interesting that virtually all of the top selling cars in Canada are compacts from “import” brands. But larger domestic models dominate “light truck” sales – and the F-Series is by far the best selling vehicle.

    So the car market looks to be quite different than the US, while the “truck” market is more or less similar.

    Canada’s top 10 cars and light trucks through the first quarter of 2012

    Car 2012 2011 % gain/loss
    1 Honda Civic 14,281 11,957 19.4%
    2 Hyundai Elantra 10,864 9,976 8.9%
    3 Toyota Corolla 8,954 8,566 4.5%
    4 Mazda3 8,053 6,370 26.4%
    5 Chevrolet Cruze 6,747 7,513 -10.3%
    6 Ford Focus 5,222 4,571 14.2%
    7 Volkswagen Jetta 4,996 5,464 -8.6%
    8 Hyundai Accent 4,866 4,375 11.2%
    9 Toyota Camry 4,472 1,720 160.0%
    10 Hyundai Sonata 3,531 3,901 -9.5%

    Truck 2012 2011 % gain/loss
    1 Ford F-Series 22,978 20,364 12.8%
    2 Ram pickup 15,608 13,154 18.7%
    3 Dodge Caravan 12,051 14,313 -15.8%
    4 GMC Sierra 9,000 9,543 -5.7%
    5 Honda CR-V 8,870 6,658 33.2%
    6 Ford Escape 8,282 9,655 -14.2%
    7 Chevrolet Silverado 7,673 8,524 -10.0%
    8 Dodge Journey 6,465 7,616 -15.1%
    9 Hyundai Santa Fe 4,808 4,830 -0.5%
    10 Chevrolet Equinox 4,782 5,024 -4.8%

    source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/driving-it-home/canadas-top-10-cars-and-light-trucks-through-the-first-quarter-of-2012/article2419043/

  • avatar
    GoesLikeStink

    I love my Fiat 500 convertible. I am in California though, but I am seeing more of them every day.

  • avatar
    stryker1

    Fiat’s success would have surprised me a few months ago, now it does not. I’m convinced Fiat has uncovered a previously under-served market. a significant percentage of women ages 18 – 35 seem to go gaga over this thing. Some might argue that the mini or the beetle were around long before, but my fiance informs me that the mini feels more like a “guy car”, while the fiat does not. I’m not sure how that logic works, but my boss’s wife agrees, and is going to have him plunk down 20k for the cabrio.

    • 0 avatar
      Botswana

      If true that doesn’t spell good news for the latest Beetle offerring. It seems to have lost it’s old charm by becoming big and bloated but still doesn’t look like something that would appeal to most guys.

      Maybe hipsters with the money for a new VW but how big is that market?

      • 0 avatar
        stryker1

        Also, the new-new beetle is fugging BIG.
        It doesn’t translate in the photos, but standing next to one, it feels like its half again as large as the outgoing beetle, and certainly much larger than the fiat.

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        The new Beetle is five inches longer than the old New Beetle.

        But it’s clearly in a different size class: the 500 is 28″ shorter. Of course the original 500 was another 23″ shorter yet than the current one!

  • avatar
    blowfish

    There’re a lot of Pisanos in Ontario, I guess a fair amount in Quebec.

    The real reason for gas is sitting close to $1.40+ a litre now in Van.

    Gas will drop again, cant be up forever. Few yrs ago thought it was going thru the roof too.

    Then again how well does FIAT stand up? Is only honeymoon period now.

    The new Merc bluetec ML & GL , does have many of them driving on the street here. Not sure how well they save on fuel, it should be atleast 30-100% In the old days a W126 380se yields 12-15mpg and a 300se u get high teens of MPG on a real good day, whereas the 300sd usually gets 30-33 in city.
    Especially in Principality of Richmond, every 3rd car is a merc, 1 in 6 cars were > 100k , in the mall I work there is 1 RR Phantom & perhaps 2 Bentleys frequent here. Whether u like it or not the reality is all these nice wheels a re all driven by Yellow perils!

    • 0 avatar
      sching

      blowfish,

      Having grown up (since the age of six), lived and regularly visit Richmond, BC, I can confirm your observations that M-B and BMW are well- (perhaps even over-) represented there.

      To better understand why, you need to know that in Hong Kong these two brands are always in the top five in terms of sales, that these cars cost 30-40% less in Canada, and gasoline is US$2 per litre (US$8 per US gallon). In short, these cars are a bargain to buy and run, relatively speaking.

      With non-whites making up the majority of Richmond’s population, Asians (especially Chinese from Hong Kong and the mainland) making up the lion’s share of these non-whites, and Richmond being afforable only to those in the upper middle-class and above, these factors together with certain cultural tendencies combine to produce the result you mentioned – lots of automotive bling.

      However, I’m pretty sure this majority would not welcome your referring to them as the “Yellow peril”. Richmond’s demographics are what they are, so the sooner you get over it, the better.

      Oh and BTW, it’s “paesanos”.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    I think the Skoda brand would do very well in Canada. I saw them on a trip to Turkey last year and they look better than their VW siblings. Plus they have a full size wagon!

    • 0 avatar

      My Grandfather bought a Skoda when he immigrated in 1961. I think it was the most affordable convertible available at the time. I think the current lineup would probably cannibalize VW sales. I was very impressed with the Octavia TDI my cousin has in Israel. It’s actually his work vehicle (he’s a detective with the Tel Aviv police). All the torque from the TDI engine couldn’t beat the satisfaction of hitting the emergency lights to speed through traffic.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Is It Time For More European Small Cars? Sure, in Canada.

  • avatar

    Am I allowed to say F ya we need more smaller, stylish cars in Canada?
    I’ve always been a big proponent of wagons, hot hatches and clever utility vehicles – the Scoda Yeti comes to mind – and I know they’ll sell here, even in Western Canada where trucks dominate.
    By the way I’ve no issue with light trucks, SUV’s and crossovers nor do I think they should be restricted. If you want it, then by all means get it,but dammit not all of us want or need something that big, or live in the rural part of this country.
    Choice is good.

  • avatar
    th009

    @Derek, “Alfa Romeo (…) has a wider range of products than Fiat”

    Where did you get that? Alfa Romeo currently offers a grand total of TWO different models: the Giulietta and the MiTo. And its sales are tanking in Europe.

    The low-volume 4C and the Giulia (a rebadged Dart) are coming in 2014, maybe also the rebadged Jeep SUV.

    • 0 avatar

      I should clarify. There will apparently be more Alfas offered in North America than Fiat brand products. The suv, 4C, Giulia sedan, Giulietta and MiTo. Fiat will have the 500 variants and the Punto in Canada.

      • 0 avatar
        th009

        The 4C will be very much a niche vehicle — we’ll be lucky to see 1000 units a year in US, a tenth of that in Canada. Giulia is a Dart, the SUV is a Jeep.

        So the only new ground Alfa Romeo will be breaking in North America will be with the MiTo and Giulietta. If and when they come here (Alfa’s return has been promised more often than … well, just about anything).

  • avatar
    Beerboy12

    You know it’s not just about high gas prices driving people to smaller cars. Shrinking income in increasingly tough economic times plays a role to. So, you can afford a nice SUV or big sedan to use as a commuter car but start to think about the cost of gas… A well engineered small car with good quality interior and high end comfort features does start to make sense. The Europeans rock at small cars so expect to see more in the future.
    Oh! And some French cars on US roads would be awesome! Funny how economic stress creates such choice in the market.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Seattle, and Puget Sound in general has always been more receptive to smaller cars in general, that is, small A thru C segments, with hatchbacks seemingly almost as common as the sedans and even the wagon models where offered were doing decently here, at least in the past for the wagons anyway. I don’t know how the Focus wagon did until it was dropped, but I saw them around a decent amount.

    I’m seeing more and more 500’s here and from Fiat 500 USA forums, as many men, of 30’s up buy this car as do women so there IS a wide demographic for the little Italian car around here and spot one nearly weekly, if not more often than that now.

    As to the new Beetle that’s just come out, I’ve seen it in the flesh, though not up close and it LOOKS bigger than the previous car though as stated, it’s not much bigger than the New Beetle that came out in ’97.

    It definitely has a more “manly” presence than the previous iteration and I’m still on the fence about it, but do not dislike at much as I did when the initial drawings were floated about showing a much truncated roof line and squished windows. The actual car does not have that affect, thankfully.

    As to gas prices, they had been as high as $4.29 a Gal at some stations for 87 octane gas, now that same station (one of the more expensive ones in Seattle) is down to $4.19 a Gal for the same grade. I don’t think we’ll get below $4-4.10 range again in many areas, though I could be wrong about that.

  • avatar
    200k-min

    Few things to note about Canada. The entire country is 1/10th the size of the USA. Also, per capita Canadians burn more fuel than American’s do. Basically what you’ve got north of the border is 3 major metro areas that are somewhat dense where people prefer smaller more efficient vehicles; Toronto, Montreal & Vancouver. Those 3 cities combined are such a huge portion of the total population they can sway statistics for an entire nation.

    And anyone that thinks Canadians “love” small European vehicles hasn’t been to the prairie provinces – AB, SK, MB. Go to a place like Edmonton and drive around a bit, you’d think you were in west Texas with all the oversized pickups.

    It amazes me as their fuel is considerably higher and the subsequent expense to “look cool” must be enormous. Then again, your average Albertan has more in common with a Texan than someone hailing from Montreal. As someone who works in and travels across Canada often I know this as fact. Anyone who thinks the US is a country divided hasn’t been to Canada.

    I love me some small European cars but it’s going to be more of a techtonic shift to get American’s (and Canadians) to start demanding them in large enough numbers to see anything happen en mass.

  • avatar
    Broo

    Strange, I keep reading that the Fiat is a big success in Canada, especially in Qc. I’m on Qc roads everyday, and Fiats are a rare sight, be it on the highway or in a city.


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