After a first-half in which the Canadian auto industry roared back from 2020’s lows, inventory challenges across virtually all makes and models caused 2021 to fall short of expectations. Auto sales climbed only 7 per cent beyond 2020’s 1.55 million.
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Premium brands, however, grew at more than twice that rate. Gains were made almost across the entire board. Only the 14-per-cent year-over-year decline at Jaguar (where only 1,846 vehicles were sold) stuck out like a sore thumb as all of its upmarket rivals improved on 2020’s results.
Not that improvement from 2020 levels was terribly hard to come by. And not that the premium auto market is back to pre-pandemic levels. Traditional premium brands (Tesla’s excluded here due to its own lack of model and market-specific sales reporting) combined for slightly fewer than 200,000 Canadian sales in 2021, 12-per-cent shy of 2019’s 223,000 units.
In an era in which full-size pickups and SUVs from brands such as Ford and Chevrolet can easily nudge or top $100,000, even while established luxury marques offer cars and SUVs at less than half that price, “premium” clearly means different things to different people. Yet among the luxury auto subset that have historically played ball on only well-manicured fields, there are many companies that have long since given up the aura of exclusivity.
They are the best-selling premium brands in Canada.
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No, as broad entities they do not produce mainstream levels of volume — collectively, premium brands produce fewer sales than Ford or Toyota, for example. But they do produce certain models that generate major volume. The Lexus RX and Audi Q5 outsell the Subaru Forester and Chevrolet Equinox; the BMW X3 and Lexus NX operate at the same volume level where you’ll find the Honda Pilot, GMC Terrain, and Nissan Murano.
There’s another essential piece of info that’s increasingly jarring: cars now account for only 22 per cent of all premium brand sales. The Mercedes-Benz ML and BMW X5 may have appeared out of place more than two decades ago when they set the stage for a revolution. Now, premium brand shoppers choose an SUV four times out of five.
2021’s 10 top-selling premium auto brands in Canada include a German triumvirate atop the leaderboard. Where do competitors from Sweden, England, Japan, and the United States fit in?
10. Lincoln: 7,532, up 5 per cent
Forget the Continental. Town Car, we never knew ye. Fusion-based MKZs and Jaguar-related LSs — they’re all gone. Lincoln has given up on cars. Only 50 remaining Continentals and MKZs were sold in Canada in 2021. The Corsair was the brand’s top seller with 2,503 sales in 2021; the Aviator added 2,043.
9. Land Rover: 8,697, up 5 per cent
Land Rover’s Jaguar partner brand is aiming for an exclusively EV future, and in the meantime, it’s contributing very little to the cause. Land Rover now operates a lineup of seven SUVs, from the top-selling Range Rover Sport (2,561 sales in 2021) to the recently modernized Defender (1,777) to the oft-ignored Discovery (215). Range Rover-branded SUVs account for seven out of every 10 Land Rover sales in Canada.
8. Porsche: 9,141, up 23 per cent
Topping not just 2020 but 2019’s record volume, Porsche broke its all-time Canadian sales record by 116 units in 2021. It required the whole family to play along. 911 sales jumped 49 per cent. The 718 Boxster/Cayman duo posted a 16-per-cent increase. Panamera sales rose 14 per cent. Taycan volume slipped, but at 732 units, Porsche still produced a wild result for the uber EV. Porsche naturally produced the majority of its volume — exactly two-thirds — with its two SUVs. The Macan and Cayenne combined for a 26-per-cent year-over-year improvement.
7. Volvo: 11,104, up 21 per cent
Volvo’s North American positioning was clearly in doubt as the once-popular first-generation XC90 aged (and aged, and aged) while Volvo’s staid sedans failed to attract attention in an increasingly SUV-oriented market. By 2014, Volvo Canada was down to only 4,466 sales. Everything shifted with the launch of a new XC90 in 2016, a new XC60 in 2018, and the first XC40 in 2019. Volvo volume in Canada has grown 149 per cent over the last seven years. 2021’s Volvo output in Canada represented a 17-year high.
6. Cadillac: 13,274, up 7 per cent
Three-thousand four-hundred and forty-two. 3,342. That’s how many Cadillac Escalades were sold in Canada in 2021, a 91-per-cent year-over-year improvement. The Escalade isn’t Cadillac’s top seller — that honour belongs to the XT5, with 4,341 sales in 2021 — but given its flagship status, the outrageous total is certainly a figure about which GM Canada can write home. Why’s it so special? The Escalade’s primary rival, Lincoln’s Navigator, mustered only 1,311 sales in 2021.
5. Acura: 16,404, up 15 per cent
Although often overshadowed by Lexus in terms of prestige, Acura was the historic Japanese luxury leader in Canada. Pre-Great Recession, in 2007, Acura outsold Lexus by a 50-per-cent margin in Canada (at a time when Lexus outsold Acura in the U.S. by nearly 2-to-1). Lexus is now clearly the favoured brand, though one wonders what Acura could accomplish with an expanded SUV lineup. The RDX and MDX account for 80 per cent of the brand’s sales. In fact, even if Acura didn’t sell any cars, the brand would very closely challenge Cadillac for fifth place overall on the strength of the RDX and MDX alone.
4. Lexus: 25,907, up 24 per cent
Although the premium vehicle market couldn’t muster up enough vehicles and demand to get back to 2019’s sales pace, Lexus took matters into its own hands. Lexus didn’t just surpass 2019 — Lexus set an all-time Canadian sales record. The brand’s top seller is the RX — it’s 10,332 sales made it the top-selling premium brand utility vehicle in the country in 2021.
3. Audi: 28,790, up 11 per cent
Audi was sailing through uncharted waters through the first-half of 2021. No premium auto brand sold more vehicles than Audi between January and June of 2021. Unfortunately for Audi, the bottom fell out as the year wore on. Fourth-quarter volume plunged 28 per cent, a drop valued at more than 2,000 lost sales. The Q5 and Q3 still ended the year as Canada’s second and fourth-ranked premium brand utility vehicles.
2. BMW: 30,651, up 20 per cent
BMW’s 2021 growth occurred in large part due to significant expansion both in the brand’s traditional core and in its modern base. On the one hand, BMW’s 2, 3, and 4 Series cars added 2,000 sales to the ledger. The brand’s top seller, meanwhile, bumped its total by 33 per cent, an 1,847-unit year-over-year gain. Which BMW is that? The X3, Canada’s fifth-best-selling premium brand utility vehicle.
1. Mercedes-Benz: 31,243, up 3 per cent
No top-tier premium brand reported a less impressive year-over-year improvement in 2021 than Mercedes-Benz. (Keep in mind, Mercedes-Benz’s van division adds a further 4,997 sales to the brand’s total.) A collapse in passenger car sales was the culprit behind Mercedes-Benz’s disappointing results. The A-Class was down 27 per cent from 2020 levels; C-Class volume slid 24 percent. Nevertheless Mercedes-Benz finished as Canada’s best-selling premium brand by averaging a scant 49 more sales per month than BMW.