19 Mar 2015

Why so many shiny new trucks?

9:41 pm on 19 March 2015

If you think you've spotted more shiny utes and trucks on our roads, you're dead right.

Ford Ranger

Ford Ranger Photo: SUPPLED

The new commercial vehicle population is enjoying a growth spurt, spurred on by road building, plenty of construction work for tradies and, at times, a decent import exchange rate.

Goods vans and utes are finding flush customers in the farming world, while plumbers, builders, carpenters and electricians are using utes for their tools during week and for their families at the weekend.

The sales surge story last year went like this: just over 31,400 light commercial vehicles were sold - up about 5000 on the year before.

Heads were turned when the Ford Ranger won the battle for ute supremacy.

The venerable Hilux drove away dented when New Zealand sales of the American marque ended a long-run at the top for Toyota.

But whether you're a die-hard fan of Ford or the Japanese brand is neither here nor there; dealers are shifting a whole lot more of what they call 'light commercials'.

Motor metrics

David Crawford from the Motor Industry Association says, when it comes to overall vehicles sales, vans and utes are the ones to watch, because flash cars are no longer the measure of how well its sector is performing.

He says the indicators changed after dealers enjoyed another year of double-digit growth in sales of light commercial vehicles.

"Traditionally we look at the sale of luxury marques like your BMWs, Mercedes, Audi vehicles, etc, as a lead indicator to how the economy's going.

"They were the first vehicles to decrease in volume leading up to the global financial crisis, and they were the first ones to climb out of it.

"Except in this case, the big growth has been led by the commercial sector, which indicates it is the economy that has been growing, and it's grown for some time before passenger vehicles have caught up."

Mr Crawford says going for a good-looking ute can indicate a tradie's pride, but the strong sales also demonstrates a move towards the pick-up becoming the smart family wagon at the weekend.

'We are seeing the tradespeople buy utes and use them as a commercial [vehicle] during the week and a family [vehicle] during the weekend because the standard of fit-out in, particularly your double-cab utes, is getting a lot better than what it used to be."

The Motor Industry Association is anticipating vans and utes will sell well throughout this year but might not match the volume growth recorded over the past couple of years.

Heavy loads on rural roads

Heavy loads on rural roads Photo: RNZ / Gareth Thomas

Trucks in luck, too

It is also boomtime for large trucks, such as long-haul freighters and big tippers.

Known in the industry as 'heavy commercials', 4966 were sold last year - up by almost 1000 on sales figures from 2013.

Mitsubishi's Fuso brand is a significant player in the sector, shifting 730 trucks last year - a rise of 200 on the previous year.

I visited the headquarters of Mitsubishi Motors, which is based in a small corner of the historic Todd Park in Porirua, a sprawling plant which was home to car assembly lines from the 1970s to the late 1990s.

Here, the company showed off its HD Euro - one of the company's top sellers.

The national sales manager of Mitsubishi Motors, Mike Davidson, says sales have shifted up a gear throughout the industry, with his firm and its dealer network taking on more staff to cope with the extra sales enquiries

"The market last year was up by 22 percent. For Fuso, our sales were up by 38 percent. In terms of what happens in the future, maybe ... We see a continuation of that at least for the first half of this year".

So what's driving the heavy truck sales? For the Motor Industry Association's David Crawford, the answer lies in roading, rebuilding and buyers deciding to opt for more efficient vehicles.

"These are being driven principally by infrastructure rebuild in Christchurch, post the earthquake, and some of the big roading projects in Auckland. And thirdly there's been an increase in what we call the high productivity trucks.

"These are the big trucks that are over 45 tonnes - where fleets like Fonterra's fleet, or the big furniture movers - they are kitting out these bigger trucks because there are significant efficiency gains."

Mitsubishi Fuso's Mike Davidson in front of a HD Euro.

Mitsubishi Fuso's Mike Davidson in front of a HD Euro. Photo: RNZ / Gareth Thomas

Bodybuild blockage beyond the border

Motor bodybuilding businesses are struggling to keep pace with the demand for fitted-out heavy trucks.

Once the vehicles come into port - mostly from Japan - there's up to an eight-month backlog for buyers.

Mike Davidson of Fuso says with sales success comes delays in the delivery of the finished product.

"From a Fuso perspective our stocks are quite good, and many of those other manufacturers are in similar positions. But there's quite a blockage in that with trucks, and with heavy trucks in particular, you bring the truck into the country in a cab chassis format and from there the truck is built up to the specification of the customer.

'It's that build period which is very over-subscribed at the moment."

Mike Davidson says the backlog's having a knock-on effect for the used truck market, too.

"There is short supply [of trucks] overall. The demand is increasing so quickly that a lot of us as suppliers can't really keep up with that. So used trucks are also in demand because they're sitting there, they're ready to go, they're already fit for purpose and they're in hot demand."

The Motor Industry Association says the commercial vehicle sector still has a spring it its step, noting it has been the strongest February on record for new commercial vehicle registrations.

And the battle to become king of the utes is back on: last month 427 Toyota Hilux rolled out of the car yards, compared to 381 Ford Rangers.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs