MELBOURNE, Australia - It's coming down to the wire Down Under.
Toyota Motor Corp. Australia Ltd. and General Motors-Holden's Automotive Ltd. are running neck and neck for the 1998 Australian sales crown. Through November, Toyota led by 1,678 units, 141,196 to 139,518.
'It's too close to pick,' said K.J. Ross McKenzie, director of sales and marketing for Holden's.
Ford Motor Co. of Australia Ltd., which held the sales crown from 1994 through 1997, is out of the running this year. The only other locally based carmaker, Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd., is its usual distant fourth.
The 1998 sales race illustrates the shifting fortunes of the top three Australian carmakers. Regardless of who wins, though, the Australian car industry is enjoying its best year ever.
Light-vehicle sales in Australia are expected to top 800,000 in 1998. That would be about 11 percent above the prior record of 722,427 in 1997. Industry executives predict sales will soften next year but still close above 750,000.
2 SEGMENTS RIDE HIGH
Car sales are riding the robust Australian economy, which grew a hefty 5 percent in the first nine months of the year. In addition, two segments of the market have exploded.
First, small-car sales soared on price cuts by Hyundai Automotive Distributors Australia. Hyundai's Excel, priced at $13,990 (Australian), or about $8,690 at current exchange rates, shook up a market where the benchmark small car, the Toyota Corolla, used to start at about $11,800.
'That's had a drag-down effect on all prices,' McKenzie said. It also has brought a large number of first-time buyers into the new-car market.
Second, sales in the small sport-utility and sport wagon segment have skyrocketed. Large models such as the Toyota Land Cruiser are long-standing strong sellers in Australia, but new models such as the Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4 have lifted sales to an estimated 220,000 from about 160,000 annually in recent years.
Toyota gained on its presence in the rising four-wheel-drive segment, its large number of imported models and increased attention from Japan.
'The status of Australia in Toyota's worldwide organization is becoming more important after the crash of Southeast Asia,' said Osamu Komori, president of Toyota Australia. Australia now is Toyota's second largest single market for exports from Japan, after the United States, he said.
Toyota will not build a large six-cylinder sedan to compete with the market-leading Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon until next year, when it will stop building Corollas and begin producing a version of the Kentucky-built Avalon alongside its Camry. Until then, it continues to rely on imports, which will comprise nearly 55 percent of its 1998 sales.
Meanwhile, GM-Holden's this year has added the Opel-designed Vectra to its plant in Elizabeth, South Australia, the only assembly plant in the country that is working two shifts.
Ford sales were hobbled in midyear by model changeover to an all-new, designed-in-Australia Falcon, its volume leader and traditionally the country's best-selling car.
Then Ford cut the base price of the car $1,370, to $18,630, and trimmed the discounts it offered Australia's all-important fleet buyers. The fleets initially resisted, hurting sales further.
'This was a fairly difficult year,' conceded Ford Australia President David Morgan. 'Next year, we certainly believe we'll be in the hunt.'