2017 sales figures: The winners and losers in the luxury car race

Like the mining boom, cryptocurrency and department store sales, the luxury car market took a breather in 2017.

Following four years of double digit growth, sales of luxury vehicles slipped 6.0 percent last year, the end of a long-running boom and the first major correction since the global financial crisis a decade ago.

And it happened in a year where more new vehicles were sold than any other – 1,189,116 according to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.

Yet until 2017 luxury vehicles had been on a long and sustained upward trajectory.

Between 2012 and 2016 sales of luxury vehicles grew 68 percent against the backdrop of a market that edged up just 6 percent.

These days, more than one in 10 vehicles sold is a luxury car or SUV.

Tough times

Mercedes-Benz Australia senior manager of public relations, David McCarthy, acknowledged 2017 was the toughest he'd seen in more than a decade.

"We haven't had real wage growth in Australia for a number of years," he said. "Banks are getting tougher and tougher on home equity loans where a lot of people are financing cars.

"People don't feel complete confidence in the economy."


That said, the 124,155 luxury cars logged as sold in 2017 was still the second highest on record, outdone only by the 2016 peak of 132,050, suggesting there is still plenty of spark left in sales of expensive four-wheelers.

And McCarthy believes there is plenty of underlying strength.

"I don't accept that the luxury market is in trouble … sure, it's a tough market. When times are tough people resort to brands and products they trust."

Star billing

Besides, in 2017 Mercedes-Benz had its best year in Australia.

The brand posted modest 3.1 percent growth in luxury sales of its passenger cars and SUVs (vans and trucks wearing the Merc badge have been excluded from these figures).

However, that doesn't tell the whole story.

In 2017 the three-pointed-star brand accounted for 29.9 per cent of all luxury vehicles sold – almost one in every three – which is the highest market share for a premium brand in Australia.

The growth is the result of impressive strength in the luxury SUV segments and small luxury vehicles such as the A-Class and CLA.

And it's backed up by cars such as the C-Class, the second most popular mid-sized car on the market, outsold only by the Toyota Camry.

Strong competition

Mercedes-Benz's strength was in some way helped by arch rivals BMW and Audi calling a partial truce in the luxury sales war that has raged for years.

In 2017 Audi abandoned plans to outsell its German rivals by 2020, instead focusing on building its brand and sustainable growth.

Audi's sales dropped by 9.3 per cent.

BMW, too, reduced the deals it was offering and instead focused on clearing run-out stock in preparation for the arrival of key new models such as the next X3.

Its sales were down 15.7 per cent.

Not alone

Audi and BMW weren't alone in experiencing a sales slide in 2017.

Jaguar (down 17.5 per cent) and Land Rover (-3.6 per cent) also slid backwards as did Volvo (-20.4 per cent), Lexus (-2.5 per cent) and Lamborghini (-3.9 per cent).

Hyundai's luxury model Genesis – recently rebranded as a standalone brand known as Genesis – also plunged in 2017.

Indeed, about half the luxury brands on sale went backwards.

As anticipated, sales of the Holden Caprice – the long wheelbase version of the Commodore is still popular with hire car operators and was once the top selling luxury car on the market – also slumped as it was phased out following the shutdown of local manufacturing.

Heading north

Among the gloom there were others with plenty to smile about, particularly at the top end of the market.

Ferrari grew 11.7 per cent – selling 210 cars, or 22 more than it did in 2016, in turn setting a new local record for the brand – and Lotus regained some of its lost ground to double its sales to a modest 62.

After two years of shedding sales Alfa Romeo also posted a 48.7 per cent increase off the back of the newly arrived Giulia.

Maserati (up 53.2 per cent), Porsche (+1.1 per cent), Rolls-Royce (+21.6 per cent), Bentley (+15.3 percent), Aston Martin (+25.2 per cent) and McLaren (+24.7 per cent) all headed in the right direction.

Size matters

Mid-sized luxury machines – everything from an Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60 to a BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class – account for almost half of all luxury vehicle sales.

And their sales grew in 2017, with mid-sized luxury SUVs up 4.2 per cent, accounting for the 4.6 per cent downturn in medium sedans and wagons.

It was a similar story with small luxury SUVs, up 5.5 per cent, while small luxury cars dropped 12.7 per cent.

And large luxury machines – whether cars or SUVs – continue to be a tough sell; there were two exceptions in the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, both up substantially off the back of new model arrivals.

Turbulent times

Depending on who you talk to the luxury market could be in for more pain or will pick up where it left off in 2016.

Predictions of softening house prices could reduce equity in property, in turn reducing people's ability to borrow against their home.

However, the chief executive of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, Tony Weber, isn't expecting an anticipated drop in house prices to deter luxury buyers.

"What we've seen with vehicle sales is solid and consistent growth," says Weber. "That's driven by the fundamental underpinnings of the economy which I see still remain there; economic growth, low interest rates … and the competition. I don't see any of that changing, so I don't see any strong correlation between the property market and the vehicle market."

He argues that stagnant or dropping house prices could dissuade people from selling, giving them another excuse to reward themselves with a new car.

Game on, then.