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Cross-border culture clash

We like them smaller and more muted; they like them bigger and brighter. JERRY LANGTON looks at why some cars never make it across the 49th parallel

By JERRY LANGTON
Thursday, February 3, 2005 - Page G17​

'Wow," was all Jason Johnson could say when Rick McIvor showed off his new car. The 26-year-old operations manager from Toronto knew his old friend was doing well in Knoxville, Tenn., but he hadn't expected this.

The brilliant yellow Pontiac GTO, with its 350-horsepower, 5.7-litre V-8 and six-speed manual transmission sounded better than it looked and, when Rick let him drive it, Jason was sold.

"I've always liked fast cars," he said. "But I never felt power like that before; I knew I had to have one."

He doesn't have one and he won't because GM isn't bringing the Australian-built sport coupe to Canada.

"Sometimes it doesn't make sense to have a import and market an entire line to Canada if the potential market is small," said John Healy, director of product planning and engineering for GM Canada. "The GTO does not meet the five mph bumper standard regulation that is specific to Canada -- the design is such that we could not get it into production before there is a redesign."

Similarly, Mitsubishi, which entered the Canadian market in 2001 after selling for years in the United States, doesn't sell its Lancer Evolution model north of the border. Although Canadians may well be interested in the 276-horsepower, all-wheel-drive version of the Lancer sedan, the closest we can buy is the 162-horsepower Ralliart model.

But it works both ways.

Although the Canadian market may lack a few limited-production performance cars, it more than makes up for it with a number of small hatchbacks not available in the United States. Canadians can choose from the Chevrolet Aveo, Pontiac Wave and Suzuki Swift -- all built in South Korea and marketed worldwide as the Daewoo Kalos -- or the similar Toyota Echo hatchback and the slightly larger Chevrolet Optra and Epica, none of which are available in the United States.

The Canadian preference for small cars comes from practicality.

"The tax structure here often leaves less money in consumer's pockets and fuel prices are generally higher here," Healy said. "Almost two-thirds of all new cars sold in Canada are compact or subcompact, while they represent less than a third of all sales in the U.S. and perhaps as significant is the fact that most small cars sold in the U.S. are second cars while in Canada they usually represent the household's only car."

"The reason we don't sell the Swift in the U.S. is because the category doesn't really exist down there," said Mike Kurnik, national manager of corporate and consumer communication for Suzuki Canada. "What we might consider a small car, they might not consider a car at all."

That fondness for smaller vehicles isn't just limited to runabouts. Nissan's popular new X-Trail compact SUV is not available south of the border, where the company concentrates more on bigger SUVs.

Besides having different models, the two nations also have differences between the same models. Some are regulatory, like metric instrumentation and five mph bumpers, while others are cultural.

"Americans seem more interested in airbags for safety," said Healy. "While Canadians pay more attention to seatbelts."

Other differences are just logical. "All Volkswagen and Audis in Canada have cold-weather equipment like heated seats," said Bernice Holman, public relations manager for Volkswagen Canada. "What makes perfect sense up here might just be ridiculous in a place like Arizona."

Dealers in many northern states, such as Minnesota and Michigan, however, offer similar standard or optional cold-weather packages as well.

One area Canadian cars differ greatly from American cars is in colour.

"We sell about twice as many black cars up here and about half as many white cars -- black cars don't make much sense in hot weather and white cars don't look right when there's snow around," said Healy. "Our most popular colour, by far, is silver; it's a good compromise between black, which can get dirty-looking quickly, and white, which isn't always appropriate for winter."

Americans also have more and brighter colour choices, even in models where subtler tones would appear to be more natural.

While it's not unusual to see a bright yellow or striking red Audi or Lexus in Manhattan, it would be in Toronto.

"We offered a bright red Grand Vitara here for a while and it just didn't sell at all," Kurnik said. "We switched it to a darker burgundy and it became very popular; of course, bright red is still popular on the same model in the U.S."

It is wise, however, not to consider either country as a single unit. "Canadians do tend to be more conservative with colours with silver way out in front," he said. "But the reverse is true in Quebec, where bright red is quite popular and so is lime green -- you'd never see those on a lot in Ontario."

Sometimes one country will show a manufacturer or importer that a model will work in the other.

"I don't want to say we were a test market," said Barbara Barrett, public affairs manager for Jaguar Cars Canada. "But when the Americans saw how popular the X-Type wagon was up here, they changed their minds and decided that they wanted it, too."

The reverse can also be true.

Saturn established itself in the United States before becoming popular in Canada, as did Kia and Mitsubishi. While Hyundai tested the waters in Canada before jumping into the huge and competitive U.S. market, others who tried the same thing -- most notably Lada, Daewoo and Skoda -- were not so lucky.
 
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