04/17/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/02/2015 08:59 EDT

Loss of Corolla doesn't have to be lethal blow for Canadian auto production

The news that Toyota is moving production of its popular Corolla vehicle from Cambridge, Ont., to Mexico is further confirmation that Canada has slipped to third place in North America's auto sector, but don't go writing the obituary of Canadian car manufacturing just yet.

Canada still makes about 2.4 million vehicles a year, about 80 per cent of which are exported, mainly to the U.S. While that's down from a peak of three million in 1999, auto manufacturing still contributes about $16 billion annually to the country's GDP and employs 120,000 people directly (plus an additional 280,000 in related industries) — compared with more than $21 billion and 175,000 workers at its height.

Two record years for auto sales — and a third one on the way — fuelled by the U.S. economic recovery, have boosted production, but there's been bad news, too, even before Wednesday's Corolla announcement. GM recently announced it's moving production of the Camaro to Lansing, Mich., from Oshawa, Ont., and shutting down one of two production lines in Oakville, Ont.

There is no doubt that Canada's auto manufacturing sector has been in steady decline from its heyday in the 1970s to late '90s when the Auto Pact between Canada and the U.S. guaranteed that for every car sold in Canada, one had to be built here and that a majority of the parts were North American built.

"There was an emphasis on Canadian-built, valued-added vehicles that required a lot of labour, and there was a shift in the '70s and '80s to source a lot of bigger vehicles up here — and trucks," said Dimitry Anastakis, a Trent University history professor who specializes in the auto sector.

Mexico cheaper for smaller cars

The Auto Pact, signed in 1965 and later superseded by NAFTA, was dissolved in 2001. In subsequent years, the 2008 financial crisis would decimate the auto industry and close several plants while stricter fuel efficiency standards prompted a shift to smaller cars.

"Low-cost jurisdictions like Mexico can produce small vehicles much cheaper than Canada, and as consumers embrace these vehicles, we are not well aligned with the market," said automotive industry consultant Dennis DesRosiers.

As Toyota, Honda and other car companies move smaller models like the Corolla south, they're having to switch Canadian manufacturing plants over to higher-end cars that bring bigger profits.

"If consumers don't embrace these higher-value-added products, then production in Canada will fall, and that is our vulnerability," DesRosiers said.

Mexico has been aggressively and successfully courting the auto sector, attracting $7 billion US in investment last year — to Canada's $750 million, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Its rise to the position of second-largest auto producer on the continent has come at Canada's expense, said Mark Nantais, president of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association.

"From 2011 through 2015, there were about 3.5 million new units of assembly capacity that were added in North America," he said. "Canada got less than three per cent of that. Sixty-three per cent went to the U.S., and 34 per cent went to Mexico."

Canada falls to 10th

Globally, Canada ranks 10th in auto production, behind not only Mexico but also Brazil, India and, as of last year, Spain. Leading the pack are China, the U.S., Japan, Germany and South Korea.

It's likely to slip even further, says DesRosiers, since its "near impossible" to get new assembly plants built in Canada, meaning it will have to rely on upgrading existing plants.

"These plants won't be able to compete in the long run with greenfield plants being built in the U.S. South and Mexico — not just because of labour costs but because of the incredibly advanced production technology in these new plants," he said.

But Nantais says that even if Canada can't provide the kind of financial incentives that Mexico has been offering, there are areas in which it can compete, such as low corporate taxes, a skilled workforce, quality manufacturing facilities with a proven track record and a sophisticated supply chain, which includes world-class, home-grown parts manufacturers like Magna, Linamar and Martinrea.

"We've got a lot of good things we can capitalize on here, but things like the regulatory burden, the cost of utilities and unreliable rail service [are potential obstacles]," he said.

Compete with U.S., not Mexico

Nantais says the industry should focus on remaining competitive with production centres like Michigan, Ohio and the southern U.S.states rather than Mexico, which has labour cost advantages that we are unlikely to beat.

To do that, he said, Canada, will have to tread carefully when it comes to implementing things like the new cap-and-trade scheme announced by Ontario, where the bulk of auto manufacturing happens, and new vehicle emissions standards. 

The holy grail for auto manufacturers is the global contract, said Nantais, and Canada has obtained at least two such deals recently: Ford's new Edge crossover, made at the Oakville Assembly Plant for the world market, and Honda's next generation CR-V, which will be made in Alliston, Ont., for export to the European Union.

"These are all good things that bode well, but there's no guarantee beyond that current product cycle, which is roughly five years," he said.

The Windsor Assembly Plant also remains the sole producer of the Chrysler minivan, an oft-overlooked success story of Canadian manufacturing that has lasted over three decades, says Anastakis, although next year's phasing out of the Dodge Grand Caravan might signal its end.

He says that thanks to the tariff-free movement of auto parts across the U.S., Canada and Mexico borders that began with the Auto Pact, the notion of "Canadian made" cars is now moot.

"People buy vehicles made in Mexico all the time — they don't even realize that," he said. "You might have an engine that's built in the U.S., a frame that's built in Canada and other parts that are built in Mexico, and final assembly gets built in Mexico."

Cars made in Canada

Source: Industry Canada, Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler