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Luxury brands win November car sales race

The new Ghibli has helped Maserati triple its sales in 2014.

Last year the vehicle market notched up a record with 1,136,227 sales, busting the previous zenith by about 24,000 and confirming that in Australia, one million-plus is the norm.

Figures for November, released last week, show sales have already passed the million mark, and when the final tally emerges in early January the industry will congratulate itself on another bumper year.

In reality, it has spent most of 2014 in reverse and it would take a freak December to even approach last year's total.

If the trend holds, then the overall decline will be about 2 per cent - equivalent to 500 fewer buyers a week. But it's a mixed picture for the 50 or so brands, with the gap between winners and losers larger than ever.

With one or two exceptions, the winners by a substantial margin are luxury brands. Their share of the market now approaches 9 per cent, up from 7.7 per cent last year, and it's reflected in some impressive numbers.

The German luxury trio dominates but Australia bucks the trend by favouring Mercedes-Benz ahead of BMW and Audi.

With its small car range - the A, B, CLA and GLA - flying out of showrooms, the three-pointed star is stretching its lead over BMW and rubs it in by selling more of its expensive performance variants as well.

Its bestseller, the C-Class, has been available for only a few months but will finish the year as the third most popular mid-size car at any price - behind only the Toyota Camry and Mazda6.

Audi's ambition is to overtake its German peers and become No 1 here, replicating its position in Europe and China. After slowing in 2012, its growth spurt has resumed and it's catching BMW on the strength of its award-winning A3 small car.

Some of the second-tier luxury brands are powering ahead even faster. Thanks to its new-generation Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, demand for the British SUV specialist is up 22 per cent. It will finish as the fourth most popular luxury marque.

Ironically, SUV demand is also powering Porsche. It cannot get enough of its second SUV, the Macan, and waiting times are stretching the patience of buyers. Without the Macan, Porsche was on track for a record. With it, sales are up almost 50 per cent. When Maserati adds an SUV, the Levante, in 2016 it can expect to get a comparable boost.

Super-large, super-expensive SUVs are what the elite badges lack but they are all working on one. Even so, Maserati's push for volume is yielding results. The new-generation large sedans Ghibli and Quattroporte have almost tripled sales this year.

Even among the luxury brands there are losers. Volvo lacks the deep pockets of the Germans and is struggling to keep its product pipeline full. Its dealers will doubtless breathe easier when the overdue replacement for its XC90 SUV arrives in the second quarter next year, with sales down 7 per cent in 2014.

Lexus is another that has waited too long for fresh product and its NX mid-size SUV arrives too late to prevent it treading water.

Among mainstream brands, losers are much easier to find than winners. Over-optimism and the pressure to grow meant many ended 2013 carrying too much stock, with Nissan the standout - but far from sole - example.

The traditional solution to this problem, and one by no means limited to mainstream brands, is for the distributor and/or dealers to register cars themselves.

It's a way of meeting sales targets but it simply saves up trouble, not the least of which is an excess of ageing 'demonstrator' models that sooner or later have to actually be sold. When they are, the sales have already been counted.

Combine that with an assault on their traditional territory by the luxury brands and everyone from Toyota to Honda, Holden to Ford, has seen their numbers go south.But the biggest losers in 2014? Cheap Chinese brands, with Chery sales down 35 per cent and Great Wall almost 60 per cent.

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