In late 2013 Toyota announced that it would no longer be selling its Matrix hatchback in the US. In a nutshell, it hasn’t sold as well as the company hoped in The States and follows the path of the discontinued Pontiac Vibe, its identical sibling, which bit the dust in 2010.
It’s not the only hatchback rejected by American buyers. Over the years, the Chevy Optra, Pontiac Wave, VW City Golf, Chevy Orlando, and Mercedes B-class have all failed to make the cut down south. And if you go ‘way back, MG introduced a “Special” tarted-up version of their MGB GT hatchback, back in the 1960s, in an effort to lure buyers away from the company’s two-seater roadster, while Toyota’s 1970s generation Starlet, despite being manufactured for some 23 years worldwide, lasted a mere three years in the US. And let’s not forget the Toyota Celica, Mazda RX-7, and AMC Gremlin, all of which have had their brief day in the sunshine, only to become automotive footnotes.
But the Matrix will carry on in Canada for the time being. “Canadians have always loved hatchbacks,” comments Toyota Canada vice-president of sales, Larry Hutchinson. “The Canadian market registered 4% more hatchback sales vs. US in 2013. The Matrix was our best-selling hatchback in 2013.” Indeed, hatchbacks sales for this company account for at least 25 per cent of all passenger car sales. Mazda, whose hatchback 3 series is their bread and butter, reports that in 2013, hatchback sales in the US were about 30 per cent of the total, while in Canada, that number jumps to almost 40 per cent.
Ditto with the Volkswagen Golf….arguably the definitive hatchback. “Yes, it is skewed more towards the Jetta in the States,” offers VW Canada’s manager of public relations, Thomas Tetzlaff. “We sell 3.8 Jettas for every Golf in Canada, compared to 4.5 in the U.S.”
It isn’t necessarily because Canadians and Americans have different tastes in automobiles. Americans, comments industry analysts Dennis Desrosiers, just have more of a love affair with their cars than we do. “In Canada, cars tend to be a necessary evil….a way to get from A to B,” he says, “whereas to many Americans, their car is a god-given right…a symbol of freedom.”
And that symbol tends to be more prestigious in flavor. “It’s about economics and psychographics,” continues Desrosiers. “The average week of earnings in the United States buys you more car than the average week of earnings in Canada ($690 vs $825 in 2012). Americans buy more prestige automobiles than we do and the core car market in the US is a size higher than in Canada.”
There are also other factors at work. Generally speaking, the Canadian definition of value for money translates into a car that is easy on fuel and dependable, with a reasonable level of comfort. To Americans, it tends to mean plenty of headroom, higher interior volume, and a more imposing presence. “How many intermediate or mid-size hatchbacks are there?” asks DesRosiers. “None. Americans just go straight to an SUV.” A hatchback, no matter how well conceived, does not make the same statement as a sedan or SUV. “To a certain degree in the U.S.,” adds VW’s Tetzlaff, “a hatchback says ‘you haven’t arrived yet’….a hatchback is not a premium car.” Incidentally, this also applies to station wagons…Europeans love ‘em – across the market spectrum – but they don’t say ‘success’ in the U.S. in the same way as they do across the pond.
“Hatchbacks are kind of a middle ground,” adds Joe Veltri, vice-president of product planning for Chrysler Group LLC. “In the US, SUVs, crossovers, and pick-ups are king….these are the markets that are growing right now. Hatchback buyers tend to be younger, and are looking for more sporty performance, with interior flexibility.” Chrysler is one of the few manufacturers not offering a hatchback model…..aside from the Fiat 500.
There are also the factors of taxation and the price of fuel to consider. Gas is still cheaper in the US than in Canada and we simply pay more for our cars up here than the Americans. “We do know that Canadian buyers tend to prefer smaller cars than Americans,” offers Honda Canada’s public relations supervisor, Maki Inoue. “One of the reasons is that smaller vehicles tend to provide better fuel economy, and value for money.” We also tend to drive our cars further. This results in different consumer behavior in Canada, adds Joe Veltri. “It’s an interesting conundrum.”
One of the major players in the hatchback market – Nissan – knows exactly who is buying its hatchbacks: everybody. “The average age for the Versa, for example, is around 50,” says Andrew Wilton, Nissan Canada’s chief marketing manager. “We’re getting empty-nesters and young intenders, both, and we definitely see opportunity for growth in this market.” Wilton explains that the ‘buyer split’ between the Versa sedan and hatchback is 90 per cent in favour of the latter….no surprise then that a new Canada-only Micra hatchback is set for release in the near future.
Like virtually every hatchback on the market, the Versa is also a global player; sold around the world, and good for around one million units per year, worldwide. Other popular hatches, such as the Ford Fiesta and Mazda 3 are also sold around the world in essentially the same form. “All the players in this market do it on a global basis,” adds Chrysler’s Veltri. “You just can’t build a business model for a hatchback for NAFTA if you make it from scratch. It has to be global.”
Which leads us to the Canadian market. Aside from BMW, Chrysler, Cadillac and a few others, all manufacturers offer a hatchback in one form or another. Some more than others; If you include Lexus and Scion, Toyota, for example, has no less than 10 different models on the market…..and that doesn’t include SUVs or crossovers.
Meanwhile The company that basically introduced the offshore hatchback to the North American market – Honda – is hanging in there, with the ever-popular Fit and low-volume CR-Z hybrid, but have no plans to introduce another hatchback in the near future.