Holden: When did the lion lose its roar?
They were once the kings of the sales ring; Australia's leading car brand. Not anymore. But what went wrong for Holden?
YESTERDAY saw the death of an iconic nameplate with Holden confirming the Commodore name would be left out to pasture next year. For many, the news was less than surprising – but where did it all go wrong for brand that once ruled the Australian market?
Spare us the inevitable “Holden died when they closed the factory” and “the ZB wasn’t a real Commodore”. We’ve heard it before, and while there is an element of truth to that – it certainly doesn’t paint the whole picture.
Of course, the Commodore isn’t the only model that has been axed from Holden showrooms in the future, with Astra also gone following yesterday’s ‘bombshell’.
After the jettisoning of Barina, it means Holden is purely SUVs and the Colorado – or at least will be until the Corvette eventually lands. But we’ll get to Holden’s revised future in a moment.
First, a history lesson to understand how the marque that was once king of the market landed itself on the endangered list – and with some luck, we’ll highlight that there’s more to it than a Commodore with a German accent.
The slide from grace
Official figures from VFACTS show 2002 as last year Holden topped the annual sales, but while Toyota was the top selling brand the following year, the Commodore still remained the top selling model.
Holden accounted for 176,023 of the 909,811 sales that year – with the Commodore, Commodore ute and Caprice making up 103,764 of them. In terms of share, Holden had 21.4 per cent of the market – a 0.2 per cent hit on the year before.
That was the beginning of the gradual decline: 1.8 per cent in 2003, a further 0.7 the next year, then 0.9 and then 2.5 per cent in 2006. In 2007, it was another 1.2 per cent. It was much of the same in 2008 with another 1.1 per cent of lost ground.
However, 2008 was also the year that ended a decade-long run of the Commodore being #1 for the month, with the Toyota Corolla outselling it in March. In 2009 there was a 0.1 per cent decline, followed by a stable year in 2010 to remain at 12.1 per cent share.
The downward spiral resumed in 2011 to lose another 0.3 per cent. By 2012, Holden had just 10.3 per cent, having lost another 2.2 per cent. In a single decade, Holden’s share had halved – all the while, Toyota boasted a steady increase over the 10 years.
Come 2013, less than one in 10 new cars came from the Holden lot, after another 0.4 per cent deficit – the same year the Corolla de-throned the Commodore as the top selling car for the year.
Toyota sold 43,498 Corolla units, to a combined 34,820 for Commodore-based lines, following a consolidated 16.6 per cent dip for the three models.
Clearly, the trend that led to the closure, and yesterday’s news wouldn’t have come as a huge shock with hindsight, but at the time Holden retained its #2 position – even if 2014 was more negative sales to lose another 0.4 per cent.
Then a further 0.6 per cent in 2015 to demote the brand to third – narrowly holding out Hyundai by 947 units. Ironically, in numbers alone it was the ill-fated Malibu’s sluggish 1,027 that was enough to prevent losing two spots in a calendar year.
Another 0.9 per cent gone in 2016 cost Holden another spot, before a rapid descent to sixth by the end of last year – overtaken by traditional sparring partner Ford as the slice of the pie shrunk to just 5.3 per cent.
Another tough year in 2019 – and Holden has a mere 4.1 per cent of the market. In the 17 years where Holden’s share has diminished, our market has become much more fragmented.
Numerous new brands all took a swipe – and tough market conditions this year and last year certainly haven’t helped, with only a few brands recording growth.
Innocently on death row
There is some merit to the notion that ZB ‘isn’t a Commodore’, because it isn’t rear wheel drive, or available in a V8. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a decent car.
Both Commodore and Astra are wrongly convicted – tainted by association and misguided decisions by those at Fishermen’s Bend.
Exhaust Notes Australia has driven the Commodore – both the VXR, and the 2.0-litre RS variant, and liked what we experienced. The same goes for the Astra R+ and the Astra LTZ. It even won the European Car of the Year in 2016.
The Astra had the accolades and a lot going for it – but as we highlighted in our review: the value for money didn’t stack up in what is one of the tightest segments of the market.
A battle ground Holden had neglected with the Cruze – and then tried to make up lost ground in with a more expensive Astra, against the Japanese and South Korean leaders: the Corolla, Mazda3 and i30.
As for the Commodore, it would be foolish to believe that even under another moniker, its fate would have been different. While the ZB has the goods – Holden damaged its own brand in the years before, losing its own identity.
Re-branding and reinventing no less than three times in five years did nothing to help its cause. There’s also the Colorado question. While Hilux, Ranger and even Triton frequent near the top of the charts, the Holden ute’s figures are humble.
Again, it’s a car that we’ve driven and find competitive in its space – but misses the mark on pricing and positioning.
Then, of course comes the complexity of the sale of Vauxhall – aka the makers of the Astra and ZB Commodore – from General Motors to French conglomerate, Groupe PSA.
There is more to this story than Holden’s lack of sales over the past four years. The 2017 sale put Holden in an awkward position – an Australian based brand, owned by America, attempting to sell cars they were forced to buy from the French.
There is a touch of speculation to yesterday’s move. Holden isn’t moving to an all SUV and ute line up by choice. It is our belief here at Exhaust Notes Australia, that the brand’s hands were tied – and product couldn’t be secured beyond next year.
Holden insiders have also hinted towards Cadillacs being seen at the proving ground at Lang Lang, which could spell a new direction for GM’s local line up.
Our other crystal-ball gazing speculation also leaves us to wonder if Vauxhall as a brand could make a return to Australia to complement the existing PSA offerings of Peugeot and Citroen.