A fifth consecutive month of improved truck sales took the edge off a disappointing November for the SA new-vehicle market.

Figures released on Monday by the department of trade & industry show that aggregate sales of new vehicles in November fell 4.6% from the corresponding 2017 month, from 49,751 to 47,486. Car sales were down 5.4%, from 32,818 to 31,054, while sales of light commercials — mainly bakkies and minibuses — tumbled 6.1%.

Sales of medium and heavy trucks improved year-on-year for the fifth consecutive month. Mediums grew 17.5% from November 2017, and heavies by 34.1%. Extra-heavy truck sales also grew, by 25.8%.

Volumes in these sectors — a combined 2,661 sales in November — are not enough, however, to radically change the overall market, but will merely smooth its edges.

Nico Vermeulen, director of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA, said the trend suggests growing investment confidence among transport operators and the industries they service.

Standard Bank’s Cyril Zhungu says the improvement is more about the overdue replacement of ageing vehicles than about actual market growth.

Following November’s decline in the overall new-vehicle market, domestic sales for the first 11 months of 2018 were down 0.9% on the same period last year: from 516,952 to 512,217. Cars fell 0.8%, from 341,519 to 338,701.

Zhungu predicted a full-year decline of similar proportions. Nor is it likely to improve soon. Soaring fuel prices in 2018 and pressure on disposable income are undermining consumer and corporate confidence and pushing more consumers towards the used-vehicle market.

Vermeulen noted: “The prevailing difficult economic environment is expected to continue over the medium term. The best that can be anticipated is for the market to stabilise in coming months. Any recovery is likely to be modest.”

At least exports are looking better. Following November’s 2.5% growth compared with a year earlier, from 33,528 to 34,352, shipments for 2018 so far have crept past those of 2017. By the end of November, the industry had exported 318,489 vehicles, compared to 317,989 at the same stage in 2017.

Vermeulen said: “The momentum of export sales has improved over the past few months. Taking into account relatively strong order books reported by most vehicle exporters, sales should improve further and reflect strong growth in 2019 and subsequent years.”