GM dogged by recalls, lingering dealer disputes in Canada

A 2014 Chevrolet Impala comes off the assembly line at GM's plant in Oshawa, Ontario. The company now has a stronger car lineup but doesn't have the dealers to promote them in Canada's big cities, one analyst says. Photo credit: GM

TORONTO -- Derrick and Eric Sharma are done with their Chevy Camaro.

Self-proclaimed "car-heads," the brothers from Brampton, Ontario, bought a Transformers-inspired, yellow and black Camaro in 2007. After the massive recalls by General Motors Co. this year, the brothers sold it and bought a Nissan Altima.

"We never really had issues with it," Derrick Sharma, 27, said in a phone interview this month. "But once the recalls started happening and we found out how GM wasn't really faithful as to being up front about things as they happened, that's taken us aback a bit."

While the biggest U.S. automaker's sales have held up in the United States, surprising some analysts, and remain strong in China, consumers in Canada aren't buying as many Chevys and GMC trucks these days.

GM's sales plunged 15 percent in Canada last month from a year earlier, even as deliveries for all automakers gained 2 percent, according to a DesRosiers Automotive Consultants report.

GM Canada sales declined 2 percent in the first half of the year, while total vehicle sales jumped 3 percent in the country. Canada is the seventh-biggest market for GM in the world, with unit sales of 234,944 in 2013.

The automaker is also suffering from weak sales of its pickups in Canada, along with lingering disputes with its dealers after the carmaker closed almost 250 outlets following its U.S. bankruptcy filing in 2009, said Dennis DesRosiers, president of the auto research firm based in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Closed dealers

"Some of it's related to the recalls, some of it's just because they have horrific issues in their distribution network with car dealers fighting with each other going back five years in the bankruptcy," DesRosiers said.

When GM filed for bankruptcy in the United States, GM Canada didn't follow suit. Instead it eliminated 242 dealerships overnight, DesRosiers said.

"In a lot of the small and midsized towns where these dealerships closed, the loyalty was more with the dealership than with the brand," he said. When dealers decided to sell another brand, their customers followed.

Punish GM

"A lot of the dealers that were terminated are trying to actually punish General Motors," DesRosiers said.

GM attributes last month's drop in Canada to strong sales in June 2013 due to a short-term program offered at that time, Adria MacKenzie, a spokeswoman for General Motors Canada, said in an e-mail last week.

The company has recalled vehicles in North America since the beginning of this year, with the most recent round announced last week.

The reasons range from small-car ignition flaws, linked to at least 13 deaths, to a radio chime. GM has set aside at least $400 million for victim compensation, the company said in its most recent earnings statement on July 24. GM's second-largest shareholder is a trust for the Canadian and Ontario governments.

Derrick Sharma said the ignition recall prompted him and his brother Eric, 26, to sell the Camaro, which is now built in Oshawa, Ontario. Eric works in property management and has numerous keys on his chain, Derrick said.

They worried the additional weight could turn off the ignition while he was driving.

Derrick said he'll probably never go back to General Motors, which has been making Buick engines in Canada for 106 years.

GM may also be seeing lower sales because it doesn't have a major presence in Canadian city centers, especially in Toronto and Vancouver, said Margaret Little, director of special analysis for IHS Automotive.

"The land there is just so expensive and so hard to get," Little said.

As GM's focus shifted to trucks from cars, the dealerships migrated to more rural areas where the market was stronger. Now, GM has a stronger car lineup but doesn't have the dealers to promote them in big cities, DesRosiers said.

Market share

GM's share of the Canadian light-vehicle market has dropped to 13 percent, trailing Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, both at 16 percent for the first half, according to the DesRosiers report.

GM was the market leader in 2009, holding almost 19 percent of the market, compared with Ford's 15 percent and Chrysler's 11 percent, according to DesRosiers.

In comparison, GM holds 18 percent of the market in the United States, where it's the leader.

Canadian consumers aren't showing much interest in the GMC Sierra or the Chevrolet Silverado trucks that were introduced last year and are two of the newest on the market, said Peter Nagle, a senior sales analyst of North America for IHS Automotive, based in Southfield, Mich.

The Silverado is the North American Truck of the Year and the Sierra is the AJAC Best New Pickup this year, MacKenzie said. Sales for the two trucks are up 2 percent and 3 percent this year, she said.

That compares with a 7 percent gain for all truck makers, according to DesRosiers.

Pickups made up about 18 percent of Canadian vehicle sales in 2013, compared with about 12 percent in the U.S., and GM is very dependent on these sales in Canada, Nagle said.

To boost sales, GM had to introduce higher incentives to keep up with the competition, something the company had previously said it wouldn't do, Nagle said.

GM hasn't had to turn to these high incentives in the United States, said Efraim Levy, an analyst for S&P Capital IQ.

"To have what sounds like universal employee pricing discounts across the brands in Canada sounds like General Motors is nervous and really trying to move the metal," Levy said.

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