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If we had our way, we would all swanning around in luxury cars, hot hatchbacks, snazzy SUVs and, for those of an environmental disposition, multimillion-rand electric sports cars. Instead, for most of us, our head (and credit restrictions) rules our hearts. We dream, but not too big.

AutoTrader’s 2022 annual report, released last week, reinforces this view. The website of the online retailer, which specialises in used vehicles, had more than 653-million vehicle searches last year. The most popular target, not surprisingly, was Toyota’s Hilux bakkie, South Africa’s most popular vehicle for some years.

Sales of new Hiluxes took a hit in 2022 because of the floods that halted Toyota South Africa production in Durban for four months and continue to affect availability, but that did not diminish consumer interest. Indeed, demand was so strong that there were reports of low-kilometre used Hiluxes selling for more than the official new price.

Volkswagen’s Polo and Vivo, top sellers in the new car market, also featured high on the used “hit list”. But it was the presence of other products in the top 10 that showed where consumers’ dreams really lie.

Sales of new luxury cars have shrunk considerably in recent years as economic circumstances have forced consumers into smaller, cheaper options. That didn’t stop the Mercedes-Benz C-Class being AutoTrader’s fourth-most searched-for vehicle in 2022. There were also three BMW models in the top 10: the 3-Series, 1-Series and X5. Joining them were the Ford Ranger, Toyota Fortuner and VW Golf, which outscored its Polo and Vivo siblings despite selling a fraction of their new numbers.

The Mercedes C-Class and BMW X5 are both manufactured in South Africa, but nearly all production of both is exported. Second-hand, though, local interest is significant.

The complete top 10, in order, was: Toyota Hilux, VW Golf, VW Polo, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3-Series, Ford Ranger, BMW 1-Series, Toyota Fortuner, VW Vivo and BMW X5.

Throw all the searches together and the 10 most-viewed brands — as opposed to vehicles — were BMW, VW, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Audi, Ford, Land Rover, Hyundai, Porsche and Nissan. That’s a give-all draw between luxury and mass market.

Everything above is the first stage of the buying journey: seeing what’s available and whether your dream car is attainable. Actual enquiries — showing what AutoTrader calls “buying intent” — gives a slightly different picture.

Here, Toyota is just ahead of VW, then there’s a gap to BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Audi, Hyundai, Nissan, Kia and Land Rover.

It may not have figured among the most “searched” brands, but Kia’s presence among those getting actual enquiries highlights the importance consumers are placing on value-for-money brands, says the report.

The same applies to the little Ford Fiesta car, which, out of nowhere, is among the models getting the most enquiries. Consumers may start out looking for popular and trendy models, says the report, but when they have done all their sums, value and affordability win out.

Hilux, once again, tops the inquiries chart, followed by Polo, Ranger, 3-Series and C-Class.

Electric vehicles (EVs) may be the future but, for now, liquid fuels rule the roost in South Africa. Online AutoTrader ads for petrol vehicles garnered 211-million views in 2022, followed by diesel (88-million), hybrid vehicles (2-million) and all-electric vehicles (825,000). Hybrids use dual motors, one electric and the other petrol or diesel.

Still, there’s no denying the growth in EV interest. AutoTrader CEO George Mienie says: “We are seeing more electric and hybrid vehicles come to the market than ever before. The increased pressure faced by suppliers to transition is fuelling marketing efforts and, in turn, driving demand.”

He observes that more than 500 all-electric vehicles were sold in South Africa last year — more than double the 212 of the previous year.

In the used market, EVs were listed 425 times on AutoTrader in 2022. Audi’s RS e-tron GT got the most consumer interest, followed by the baseline e-tron and Porsche Taycan. Considering that the average asking price for these used cars was, respectively, R3.1m, R2.1m and R3.1m, it’s clear that most viewers were there to gawp, not seriously consider.

Nevertheless, the e-tron GT and baseline model were second and third for actual consumer enquiries. The leader in this category was the BMW i3, which was priced, on average, at a “budget” R655,000. The two Audis came in just ahead of the Tesla Model Y.

Unlike some observers, who expect restrained new vehicle sales growth in 2023, Mienie predicts a strong recovery.

He says: “[EV] sales will continue to grow and we will see more launches in this segment. Further growth can also be expected in the SUV and crossover segments, not to mention the up-and-coming Chinese and other Asian brands.”

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