2020 new car sales showed strong recovery after initial pandemic shutdown

Auto sales across the country came to a halt last spring, as the public first went into lockdown over coronavirus fears. A drop so precipitous that some brands stopped reporting monthly sales entirely. But surprisingly, after April, when sales dropped by three quarters, the market recovered. Such a massive and quick recovery, that brands started setting sales records. One brand even ended up the year with more sales than 2019, which might be one of the biggest surprises of the year.

After a strong January and February, sales were cut in half for March and dropped 75 per cent in April. Fleet sales, to commercial customers such as daily rental agencies, were especially impacted. Kia Canada vice-president and COO Elias El-Achhab told us in May that only one or two automakers saw any fleet sales in April. 2018 data from GM shows fleet sales made up 25 per cent of its total deliveries that year, so this isn’t an insignificant volume.

Fleet and commercial sales were slow to recover, though as GM Canada vice-president of sales, service and marketing Sandor Piszar told us last week, “that’s the least profitable, on that side of the business.” He expects commercial, government and small business sales to continue to improve into 2021, contingent, of course, on our handling of the virus.

Piszar said that retail sales, those to your average person walking in to buy a new vehicle, are “a high priority.” Those sales were extraordinarily strong beginning in the second half of the year as buyers returned in droves. Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra HD trucks saw retail sales up 59 per cent from 2019, while Buick posted a slight gain for the year in retail sales and Cadillac posted its best retail year ever, the only brand in the country to post a sales increase over 2019. Piszar credits the retail increases to customers heading outdoors.

“If I can’t go on vacation, I’m going to buy a camper and I’m going to drive across Canada. And to do that I need a new truck,” he said. GM picked up the most market share in 2020, up 0.8 percentage points to 14.2. Sales at GM, he said, were limited by inventory more than a lack of demand.

“There’s no doubt that if we had more inventory on the ground we would have been able to sell more. (Dealers) across the country have done just an amazing job in serving our customers, meeting their needs, and they have sold deeper into their inventories than ever before.”

At Ford Canada, Super Duty sales were up, along with other trucks and SUVs including the Explorer and Ranger, and though the automaker saw yearly sales down 16.4 per cent to 239,571, the fourth quarter saw very strong commercial van, Mustang, Explorer and Ranger sales, showing that the market is recovering. Ford has the highest market share in the country and picked up 0.6 points this year to hit 15.6.

FCA Canada saw sales down 20 per cent for the year, to 178,752, but the fourth quarter saw sales rise five per cent from 2019 levels. Strong performers there included nearly every Jeep, the Pacifica van, Charger and Dodge Durango.

Toyota saw hybrid and PHEV models make up more than a quarter of sales in December, up 42.7 per cent for the quarter. The company as a whole, with Lexus, saw sales down 19.3 per cent to 191,420 for the year, with similar slides for Toyota and Lexus. Yearly highlights include the Highlander Hybrid more than doubling sales for the year and the Tacoma pickup having its best year ever, moving 14,376 units.

Mazda saw nearly 80 per cent of its customers pick a crossover, with the CX-30 the company’s second-best seller in just its second year. Half of Mazda3 buyers picked the AWD option new to that car line. While the automaker was down 13 per cent on the year at 57,773, it saw sales rise 13 per cent in December including a doubling of Mazda6 sedan and 23 per cent increase in CX-5.

Hyundai posted record sales in four of the last five months in Canada. The brand’s total market share grew 0.4 per cent, an important figure, though sales were down for the year. The Kona has become the brand’s best seller, hitting 26,651 for the year while all of Hyundai was down 15.7 per cent to 112,358. That closed the gap between the brand and Honda, which saw a larger 25 per cent drop to 125,962. Hyundai was just 1,500 units shy of Honda in Q4.

Kia posted a record year, if you forget about April and May: Eight months of record sales, including an August that was the company’s best single month ever. They posted one of the smallest drops for the year, just 5.5 per cent to 72,452 and had the second-largest sales increase for Q4, up 12.3 per cent to 18,519.

Volvo had the highest jump in the quarter, up 13.6 to 3,009 sales. Volvo’s year ended down 9.3 per cent at 9,213 and other luxury automakers including Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW showed sales drops more than 22 per cent for the year, little changed in Q4.

Subaru was another surprise for the year, posting multiple record months, its best second half ever and its highest market share ever. The Crosstrek was the top seller, up 54 per cent for the month to 1,848, while WRX STI and BRZ outperformed 2019. Subaru Canada marketing and product planning VP Ted Lalka credits brand reputation and its dealer network for the 2020 recovery.

“The product is number one. Number two, and I think this is a close second, is the brand’s reputation, the brand’s reputation for things like value,” Lalka said.



“Safety is really important to people these days. And they recognize Subaru more and more as a leader in safety which (has) been acknowledged … with Top Safety Pick plus designations for so many of our models.” As far as stores, Lalka said that, “they have striven to provide the safe environment for people to have their vehicle serviced and to purchase new vehicles.”

Nissan saw its full-year sales drop of 33 per cent recover to just a 22 per cent drop in Q4, while luxury brand Infiniti saw sales drop 30 per cent for the quarter and nearly half for the full year. Volkswagen sold 49,830 units, down 28 per cent for the year with a similar Q4 impact, though didn’t break out by model.

Katherine E. Ackerman

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