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Market Insight: Soft sportscar segment set for upswing

Back in the hunt: Mazda’s new MX-5 is certain to attract a strong buyer response in Australia, but history tells us the sales surge will only be short-lived.

Affordable sportscar segment sales pendulum set to lift with new MX-5, Veloster


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25 May 2015

THE softening sub-$80,000 ‘affordable’ sportscar market all of a sudden has a harder edge to it with Mazda’s aggressive move to price its forthcoming new MX-5 below $32,000 and Hyundai’s equally impressive counterattack with its upgraded high-output Veloster Turbo, which now starts below $30,000.

This is a rollercoaster segment with peaks and troughs in parallel with new model activity and consumer confidence, catering to keen and/or image-conscious drivers with discretionary income but always proving a challenge for car-makers in maintaining sales momentum after the honeymoon launch period.

Toyota’s 86 and the related Subaru BRZ are typical examples, suffering double-digit sales declines this year and last, after quickly peaking in 2013 – their first full year on sale.

Toyota racked up more than 6700 sales of the 86 in 2013, fulfilling thousands of orders that dated back to its launch in the previous year as supplies improved.

For a brief period, Toyota was simply unable to cope with demand from Australian buyers who were drawn in by the coupe’s sex appeal, sporting dynamics, affordability (starting from $29,990, plus on-roads at launch) and sheer novelty value as the brand’s first model for driving enthusiasts since the demise of the Celica and MR2 Spyder in 2005/06.

Last year, however, Toyota 86 sales fell 36.5 per cent to 4257 units – despite an equipment and mechanical upgrade – and to the end of April this year the coupe’s 1087 new registrations mark a further 32.5 per cent decline.

Similarly, Subaru attracted more than 1400 sales of its BRZ in 2013 – offering a more limited range positioned further upstream – but has since been on a downward trajectory, with a 21.2 per cent fall last year and an 11.9 per cent decline so far in 2015.

Now it is Mazda’s turn to shine, with its new-generation MX-5 certain to bring a sales resurgence for the compact roadster when it launches in August with a new 1.5-litre entry-level model priced from $31,990. A 2.0-litre variant will follow later in the year.

MX-5 sales have reduced to a trickle in recent years, with just 118 registered last year, 178 in 2013 and 159 the year before that – a far cry from when the outgoing NC series was launched a decade ago.

The current generation’s first full year (2006) delivered around 1500 sales, but, as is the norm in this segment, the high gloss has slowly faded since then despite model year upgrades and limited editions designed to keep sales ticking over.

Part sports coupe, part small hatch – and with pricing at launch in early 2012 of less than $24,000 – Hyundai’s unique Veloster has had a similar journey in the sportscar segment, though with shallower falls and indeed an improvement in sales this year as the current model is run out ahead of the facelifted series.

The South Korean brand sold more than 4100 examples of the Veloster in 2012, slipping only 4.4 per cent in 2013 (to 3928), while last year’s return of 3405 units marked a 13.3 per cent downturn.

This year, however, sales have bounced back 4.1 per cent to the end of April, and Hyundai is now counting on the newly launched mid-life model overhaul to push annual sales back up beyond the 4000 mark.

The sub-$80,000 segment as a whole is down 15.6 per cent this year, but is certain to improve with the high-performance Veloster Turbo’s repositioning (and new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox option) and as pent-up demand for the new MX-5 is released.

Comparison with other years is difficult given other models such as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe have shifted between the sub-$80,000 segment and above-$80K category.

But there are several positive influences on the current sub-$80K segment, including Volkswagen’s Scirocco R – relaunched in January with fresh styling, lower pricing (from $45,990) and extra equipment – and BMW’s new-generation 2 Series Convertible which arrived in March.

Audi’s A3 Cabriolet that launched in mid-2014 is also making its mark, while Holden’s Cascada and sporting Astra range have just entered showrooms and will add incremental volume.

Among the lower-volume models, Kia’s Pro_cee’d GT has plenty of room for improvement but stands to benefit from the introduction at some point of the dual-clutch transmission option that has just arrived with Veloster Turbo.

Further down the road, Fiat has its all-new MX-5-based 124 Spider coming, while turbocharged and convertible versions of the 86 and BRZ are still a chance and would be just the thing for Toyota and Subaru to swing the pendulum back their way – if the cost of development and production, like all sports models from mainstream mass-market brands, justifies the outlay of what will inevitably be a limited-appeal and short-term sales hit.

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