Australian new vehicle sales were down 17.9% in March, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) said, attributing the drop to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the general economy.

Sales for the month totalled 81,690, consisting of 21,777 passenger vehicles for a 26.7% share of the market, 39,171 SUVs (48%) and 18,162 light commercial vehicles (22.2%). 

Toyota was the best selling brand in March, with 17,583 sales recorded. In second place was Mazda with 6,819 sales, followed by Mitsubishi with 6,002 sales, Kia with 5,654 sales and Hyundai with 5,306 sales.

The top-selling vehicle in March was the Toyota Hilux with 3,556 sales, followed by the Ford Ranger (3,108 sales), Toyota RAV 4 (2,991 sales), Toyota Corolla (2,812 sales) and the Holden Colorado (2,391 sales).

Tony Weber, chief executive of the FCAI, said that despite the difficult conditions, numerous automotive dealerships around Australia remained open.

"Many dealerships have opted to remain open to maintain support for customers, particularly from a service perspective, during this difficult period.

"Of particular importance are first responder and essential services vehicles. We must keep these vehicles on the road to ensure our communities continue to function and remain safe.

"In addition, we need to ensure those who physically attend their workplace can travel safely.  The motor vehicle is a safe form of transport during the pandemic, allowing occupants to preserve their personal distance from other commuters. 

"Within dealerships, customer safety is of the highest priority, and automotive brands have initiated a variety of enhanced hygiene protocols and contactless consultations to maintain personal distance," Weber said.

The March monthly result represents the 24th consecutive month of negative growth for the automotive industry in Australia and has been caused by a number of issues over the past two years, including environmental, political and economic factors, the FCAI said.