“Now, for the Utility Vehicle of the Year award,” he said at the outset of press previews for the Toronto auto show on 14 February. “It used to be Truck of the Year but, well, we don’t have any trucks,” he added just before the award in question, decided by 80 Canadian automotive journalists, was presented to Hyundai for its Santa Fe 2.0T Sport crossover.
At the Geneva, New York, Frankfurt, Tokyo or Detroit auto shows, industry figures go “off book” as often as Lexus SUVs go off road. This, however, was the Toronto auto show, where things are decidedly different.
Given the proximity, both geographically and temporally, of the Detroit (January) and Chicago (February) auto shows, in addition to the Geneva salon in early March, Toronto is the red-headed stepchild of the winter show season, with few global vehicle debuts to tout. This year, the show’s 40th, was no exception, with just one North American introduction – that of the Kia Rondo – and no global unveilings to speak of.
Why, then, was the mood so carefree within the labyrinthine Metro Toronto Convention Centre? In a word, profits.
Like their contemporaries in the United States, the Canadian divisions of major automakers recently concluded their most profitable fiscal year since the most recent US recession. Kia Motors Canada leapfrogged Mazda and Nissan in annual sales for the first time, en route to posting its largest profit in company history. Chrysler noted that 25% of all worldwide group production was now taking place on Canadian soil. And a Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman noted simply that 2012 had been “very, very good” for the brand.
The unguarded mood was infectious. Taro Ueda, vice president of Nissan Design America, spoke freely about design elements of the Infiniti Q60 coupe, a car more than two years away from being shown anywhere. Mercedes-Benz Canada, meanwhile, openly acknowledged a lamentable truth that the brand’s US contemporaries only tap-dance around: Americans are just not that into hatchbacks.
For all the plain talk and often-repeated strong profit forecasts, Canada, like the US, is not an island. The nagging sales slump in western Europe forces automakers to make difficult product-planning decisions every day, and the reverberations from a territorial dispute between China and Japan continues to erode sales positions in Asia.
By 18:30 local time, nattily dressed car dealers, some in black tie, were arriving at the convention centre for a VIP preview. Vehicles inside received another polish. Across the street, flower vendors hawked Valentine’s Day bouquets to passing couples. Overseeing it all was the CN Tower, Toronto’s most recognisable building, whose illuminated red spire disappeared into low cloud.