General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet brand lost a little something in Russia last month. About 5,000 unit sales. And a crown.
After three consecutive years as the No. 1 foreign brand in Russia, Chevrolet fell to third place in January behind Kia and Renault as the annual New Year effect bit hard into sales. Russia's traditional, and protracted, New Year celebration inflicts a high cost on automakers each year as the country shuts down for up to two weeks.
Russians take as many days off as they can during the period and many businesses, including car dealerships, close.
Although the U.S. automaker was up 49 percent in January over a year earlier to 7,304 passenger vehicles, it was down 5,000 unit sales or 40 percent when compared with December, according to data supplied by the Association of European Businesses (AEB) in Russia.
Kia sales in January were essentially unchanged from December, allowing it to slip past Chevrolet by a mere 700 units. Renault was down 3,600 units from December, but still edged out Chevrolet by 510 units in January. Both Kia and Renault include light-commercial vehicles in their sales counts; Chevrolet does not.
The chance of upsetting the longtime sales leader seemed remote, even improbable, in December. Chevrolet finished the full year 12,000 units ahead of Kia and 16,000 units ahead of Renault, according to the AEB data. In December, the GM unit sold 12,552 cars, up 35 percent over a year earlier, while Kia's sales slipped 4 percent, to 7,690.
Overall sales up 72%
But for whatever reason, this year's holiday effect has hit automakers harder than in previous years. Although the headline number for January sales this year was "up 72 percent" for a gain of 53,560 units, the comparison is to a weak month a year earlier, when the turnaround in the global economy was just beginning.
When compared with one month earlier, December 2010, the market in January was down 37.6 percent, a loss of 77,000 units, according to AEB data.
In January 2010, sales were off 42 percent from the prior month, or by 54,135 units, according to AEB data. A year earlier, in January 2009, the holiday effect cost automakers just 42,810 cars and light commercial sales, a 27 percent decline from December 2008, the data show.
With the exception of Kia, every major automaker in the Russian market lost sales in January:
• Russia's own AvtoVAZ said sales of its Lada vehicles fell by 14,057 units or 28.3 percent from December, to 35,540, although the brand was up 105 percent over January of 2010.
• Renault was down 3,600 units or 31.5 percent from December, but gained 115 percent over January a year earlier.
• Ford sales plunged 68.4 percent from December, or 7,842 units, but were up 24 percent over January 2010. The automaker's Focus compact was bumped as best-selling foreign car in Russia and the No. 5 car overall by the Renault Logan, and fell to No. 9 overall.
• Hyundai lost 4,044 unit sales, a 43 percent month-to-month drop, but was up 5 percent over January a year earlier.
• Nissan dropped 3,473 units from the prior month, or 33.6 percent, but was up 147 percent over January 2010.
• Toyota lost 2,215 units, a 26 percent drop from December, but rose 89 percent year-on-year.
• VW was off 37 percent from December, or 2,512 units, but showed an 86 percent increase from January to January.
Despite the apparent loss of thousands of sales from the New Year effect this year, official and private forecasts assume they are temporary and likely to be quickly recovered—assuming the Russian economy continues to expand.
The AEB says the oil price-led economic recovery and the continuation of the government's scrapping incentives support its forecast for a 20 percent growth in the market this year, to about 2.24 million units. In a separate forecast, the Russian government said recently that it expects sales to rise 15 percent this year to about 2.19 million.
It is not clear if the government forecast counts LCV sales, as the AEB does.
"January of course is a short month with lower historical volume," David Thomas, head of Volvo Russia and chairman of the AEB's automotive committee, said in a statement. "But it's a good start to a year in which we've forecast close to 20 percent growth."