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Australian car brands: Everything you need to know

Australia's taste in cars changed dramatically as local manufacturing reached its end.

Truly Australian car brands – as in brands that mass manufactured cars locally, regardless of the origin of their overseas parent companies, became a thing of the past in 2017.

After years of being on life-support via government 'co-investment' (aka subsidies) the local arms of Ford, Holden and Toyota closed their Australian manufacturing operations within short intervals of one another.

It marked the end of almost 70 years of mass car manufacturing on our continent, which started in 1948, but it also came at a time where Australia’s taste in vehicles had significantly shifted toward SUVs and dual-cab utes.

While the popularity of SUVs can be put down to global trends, a generational shift and the availability of affordable models from import markets, the dual-cab ute scores points for Australian consumers thanks to their true multi-purpose ability for on- and off-road, for work and for families. Both appeal to the kinds of Australians who once would have bought locally made sedans, wagons and utes.

Those three big names became the longest-running and most well-known of the Australian manufacturers, but there were other notable automakers with local manufacturing operations. They included British Leyland (best known for the P76 sedan), Chrysler (most known for the Valiant sedan), Mitsubishi (most known for its Sigma and Magna range), and Nissan which locally assembled Pulsars and Skylines (R31).

The Mitsubishi Magna was one of the most popular cars in Australia for a long time. The Mitsubishi Magna was one of the most popular cars in Australia for a long time.

Other large manufacturers which once had a presence in Australia include Renault and Peugeot (exited local manufacturing in 1981) and Volkswagen (exited local manufacturing in 1968).

More minor, but notable Australian manufacturers included Hillman, Lightburn and Goggomobile.

At the time of Ford’s final plant closure in Broadmeadows, it manufactured the final-generation FGX Falcon sedan, ute, and SZ II Territory SUV. Ford Australia manufactured over six-million vehicles in Australia.

The SZ Territory helped Ford compete with the rising imported SUV market. The SZ Territory helped Ford compete with the rising imported SUV market.

The end of the local Ford operation also signalled the end of its locally designed and built 'Barra' straight-six engine, which has gone on to become something of a legend among fans and tuners alike.

When Holden rolled the final Commodore off its Elizabeth plant’s production line on the 20th of October 2017, it had produced a total of 7,687,675 cars. At the time it produced the VFII Commodore/Calais sedan and wagon, as well as the ute. Local production of the Australian-designed JH Cruze sedan and hatch ceased a year earlier.

The Holden Cruze was a last attempt by General Motors to make use of Australian manufacturing facilities. The Holden Cruze was a last attempt by General Motors to make use of Australian manufacturing facilities.

Holden built a series of four- and six-cylinder engines in Australia, and had exported V6 engines to the world from its Port Melbourne engine plant.

Toyota closed its Altona plant in October 2017 – the most significant closure in Toyota history – after building over 3.4 million cars in Australia.

At the time, the Altona facility only produced Camry sedans, with the larger V6-powered and Australian-designed Aurion sedan having been canned a few months earlier.

The Aurion catered to waning Australian demand for large sedans. The Aurion catered to waning Australian demand for large sedans.

The big three facility closures marked the permanent end of automotive mass-manufacturing in Australia.

The failures of local manufacturing can be put down to many things - high labour costs, unsustainable government subsidies - it also came at a time when a significant number of Australian consumers had already shifted from purchasing sedans to the burgeoning SUV market - something for which the local operations had not planned or equipped for.

Australia could simply no longer sustain its manufacturing segment, which was tooled mainly to produce Falcon and Commodore sedans. Australia could simply no longer sustain its manufacturing segment, which was tooled mainly to produce Falcon and Commodore sedans.

According to VFacts figures for April 2019, SUVs have grown to 44.2 per cent of Australia’s car market. At the same time, the commercial segment has grown to 21.1 per cent thanks to the surge in popularity for dual-cab utes.

To illustrate the fundamental change in Australia’s car landscape, the top three SUV’s this year are the Mazda CX-5 which has sold 8329 units so far, Toyota RAV4 at 7017 units and the Nissan X-Trail at 8329 units.

In comparison, the most popular sedan, the now-Japanese-sourced Toyota Camry has sold 4665 units thus far, with clear space between it and the next-most popular sedan, the Opel Insignia-based Holden Commodore which has sold just 3185 units this year.

At the peak of Commodore production in 2005, there were almost that many cars being pumped out every week. The same year, sedans hatchbacks and wagons made up 60.5 per cent of the car market, whereas SUVs made up just 19 per cent.

The title of most-popular car in Australia is now fought over by the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux, both are made in Thailand and have sold 11,804 units and 12,020 of just 4x4 versions respectively so far this year.

The HiLux has always been popular in Australia, but it has an even brighter future as a market leader. The HiLux has always been popular in Australia, but it has an even brighter future as a market leader.

Top selling cars in Australia – a 20-year comparison list

RankFull-year 2018Full-year 1998
1Toyota HiLuxHolden Commodore*
2Ford RangerFord Falcon*
3Toyota CorollaToyota Camry*
4Mazda3Hyundai Excel
5Hyundai i30Toyota Corolla
6Mazda CX-5Mitsubishi Magna*
7Mitsubishi TritonNissan Pulsar
8Toyota RAV4Toyota HiLux
9Nissan X-TrailHolden Rodeo
10Hyundai TucsonToyota LandCruiser

* - Australian built

Do you lament the loss of Australian-manufactured cars? Tell us what you think in the comments below.