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By Joshua Dowling
The Sydney Morning Herald

Australians are continuing to buy new cars at a record rate but are falling out of love with the biggest-selling sedans, instead embracing four-wheel-drives and prestige European brands.
In what is shaping up to be another boom year, January figures released this week by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries showed sales of the Holden Commodore are at a three-year low -- down 4.2 percent compared with January 2003, while the Ford Falcon dropped by 4.5 percent.

"It's a worry," said Holden chief Denny Mooney, when asked about the drop of 7.6 percent in sales of large cars.

Buyers are instead favouring bigger -- and more expensive -- four-wheel-drives. Sales of what marketing executives refer to as "soft-roaders" (compact four-wheel-drives such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4) dipped slightly (down 0.9 percent) while sales of mid-size four-wheel-drives such as the Toyota Prado and Mitsubishi Pajero are up 43.8 percent, and luxury off-roaders are up a staggering 71.4 percent compared with January 2003.

A bigger range of European marques is also driving sales, with prestige brands registering an increase of 61 percent.

Four-wheel-drives and premium European brands have become more affordable because of a gradual reduction in import tariffs -- and are more accessible since the proliferation of the novated lease, which allows those entitled to a company car to choose any model they like provided it fits within their company's budget.

The marketers call this group of buyers "user choosers" and it appears they have embraced the idea of updating if they can have the car they want, rather than the fleet car their company may have previously insisted upon.

The January data showed that new car sales were 5.9 percent up on last January, with 64,797 sales -- the biggest January on record. January 2003 sales of 61,170 eventually led to an annual record of 914,000 sales and the industry is forecasting another boom year.

The former market leader Holden has lost ground, being squeezed between a strong Toyota and an improving Ford. Analysts say the new Falcon has taken sales from Holden's bread-and-butter, the Commodore, while Toyota is making huge gains with a vast four-wheel-drive range.

The flood of four-wheel-drives has prompted both Ford and Holden to develop their own, but Holden's all-wheel-drive Adventra is off to slow start. Only 199 of a forecast 400 were sold in January.

Moving fast
The top 10 selling car companies in Australia in January:

Toyota -- 13,532
Holden -- 11,686
Ford -- 8154
Nissan -- 4553
Mazda -- 3931
Mitsubishi -- 3799
Honda -- 3174
Hyundai -- 2808
Subaru -- 2508
Kia -- 1741
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