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JAPANESE juggernaut Toyota has had the 2018 Australian new-vehicle sales crown in the bag for months, with its evergreen HiLux pick-up and Corolla small car leading the charge to the finish line on December 31.

Toyota sales have already zoomed past the 200,000 mark – almost double that of the nearest contender and up 0.8 per cent on the first 11 months of last year – and so the perennial market leader should hardly have to break into a sweat this month to eclipse last year’s 216,566 units to make 2018 its best result in at least six years.

And as night follows day, Mazda (103,151 YTD) will retain its second placing, with Hyundai (88,421) taking the third step on the podium again, judging from official VFACTS year-to-date sales numbers to the end of November.

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But with one month of sales to go, it is less certain down in the pack where Holden, Kia, Nissan and Volkswagen are fighting over places six to nine on the sales ladder, all separated by just 3600 units.

In sixth place with a target on its back Holden has floundered this year as its sales plummeted 28.4 per cent, to 55,929 vehicles at the end of November, as the one-time market leader comes to terms with the hole in its line-up caused by the closure of its Australian manufacturing plant in October last year.

From here, it would take a miracle to reach the 90,013 sales it accumulated last year.

With Commodore sales falling almost 60 per cent on the switch to an imported model, Holden has dived from fourth place on the sales rankings in 2017 to sixth.

It has already been leapfrogged by Mitsubishi (77,638) and one-time arch-rival Ford (63,851), and now Kia appears to be breathing down its neck as the year comes to a close.

The latest year-to-date sales figures show Kia on 54,929 sales, up 7.6 per cent for the year and putting it in seventh place, just 1328 units behind Holden.

This growth has come courtesy of solid performances from the bread-and-butter Sportage medium SUV and Cerato small car, plus growing customer support for its mighty mite, the Picanto, and a cameo from the Stinger large car.

Last December, Kia sold a little more than 4000 vehicles. If it does similar this year, it could end up on about 59,000 sales for the 12 months.

Holden, on the other, sold a massive 12,179 vehicles in the final month of the year in a massive lunge for the line and sales respectability.

Hanging on: Holden is advertising $17,990 driveaway Astra sedan “demos” with 0.9 per cent finance and a five-year warranty as the clock ticks down to the end of a disappointing year.

Fundamentally, Holden simply got dealers to register masses of cars – mainly Astras, but also some Colorados and run-out Commodores – to make it look better.

The “demo” ruse launched Holden into second place behind Toyota for the month, with Astra ranked number two behind the HiLux in the December sales rankings.

As history shows, many of those cars were still sitting on dealer forecourts well into 2018, putting Holden behind the eight-ball again.

The question is whether Holden, under the new direction of former Toyota Australia president Dave Buttner, will try a similar stunt this year to guarantee that Kia does not knock Holden out of sixth place with a massive December push.

Holden is already advertising Astra sedan “demos” for $17,990 driveaway, complete with 0.9 per cent comparison rate finance and five-year warranty.

However, even if Holden only matches its November sales tally – 5125 – it should have enough in reserve to hold out Kia, barring something unusual.

Kia also has to worry about Nissan which appears to have rediscovered its mojo after several indifferent years.

Sitting just 1446 units behind Kia on 53,165 sales, the Japanese company has made unspectacular but steady progress in 2018, with sales up 2.2 per cent as it swims against the flow of the market that is down 1.9 per cent.

Last month, the X-Trail medium SUV and Navara ute both made the top 10, helping Nissan to outsell Kia for the month, 5330 to 4644.

Kia Cerato

The most likely outcome come December 31 is that Kia’s current Open Season driveaway sale, with specials such as the ubiquitous $19,999 driveaway Cerato, will see off a Nissan challenge.

The fourth contender in this crowded pack, Volkswagen, ended last year in seventh place, in front of Nissan and Kia, but with a slip of just 1.0 per cent in volume this year it has slid to ninth place on 52,329 sales to the end of November.

VW is pulling out the stops with an end-of-year sale with driveway specials across pretty much the entire range, and while that might not be enough to revive old glories, it might at least get the brand somewhat closer to last year’s sales tally of 58,004 vehicles.

At the outer edge of the top 10, Honda and Subaru are separated by just 771 units – 47,336 to 46,565 respectively – which should make for an entertaining tussle this month.

In the most popular car categories, the race is all but over for 2018. Toyota’s HiLux has already busted its own sales record of 47,093 to see off the challenge from Ford’s locally developed Ranger for the title of Australia’s number-one motor vehicle and top pick-up.

HiLux should end the year well north of 50,000 units for the first time to set a new Australian pick-up benchmark, while Ranger can be expected to mark time with a figure similar to last year’s 42,728.

Another Toyota favourite, the recently updated Corolla small car, has put some daylight between itself and the rival Mazda3 – 33,009 to 28,780 – that is almost at the end of its lifecycle.

It would be hard to see Toyota dropping the ball as it makes the thrust for the top passenger car crown with Corolla once again.

Mazda is set to reverse the tables on Toyota in the SUV race, with its ever-popular CX-5 medium wagon leading Toyota’s RAV4, 24,180 to 20,436.

In the sportscar class, Ford’s Mustang has a stranglehold on proceedings, amassing almost 6000 sales to date, with daylight second.

Mitsubishi’s ASX should score its first small-SUV category win over Mazda’s CX-3. They are currently 17,734 to 15,225.

In the luxury market, Mercedes-Benz’s champion C-Class should outpace rivals such as the BMW 3 Series, despite a certification hiccup that has cost the company a host of sales in the past few weeks.

C-Class sales are down 43.7 per cent for the year, to 4395 units, with November sales tumbling 71.8 per cent.

BMW’s 3 Series is in run-out ahead of an all-new model next year, and has managed just 2918 units in 2018.

By Ron Hammerton

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