Home » Three Times Luxury Brands Sold Premium Small Cars Just To Please Canadians

Three Times Luxury Brands Sold Premium Small Cars Just To Please Canadians

Canadian Luxury Car Topshot

Canada can be a funny country. Despite being the second-largest country in the world based on land mass, we don’t really use all of this space. In 2009, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that 90 percent of Canadians lived within 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the American border. This poses a bit of a problem for road trips. If you’ve never driven across Canada, it’s hard to truly understand how absolutely empty most of it is. If you set out on a jaunt from Toronto to Vancouver, it’ll take roughly 20 hours of driving, or 1,900 kilometers of driving, to reach Ontario’s western border with Manitoba. As such, we tend to fly for domestic travel rather than drive. So what effect does a reasonably concentrated population and a proclivity to flying have on the Canadian automotive landscape?

For starters, Canadians tend to buy smaller cars than Americans. Swap Accords for Civics and Camrys for Corollas to essentially get our best-selling car charts. Secondly, base models are far and few between up here. Sure, every Canadian knows someone who only pops for the base model (hi Dad), but it’s often genuinely surprising whenever a manufacturer forecasts a higher Canadian product mix for base models than for loaded-up trims. Unsurprisingly, some manufacturers have put two and two together, offering tailored compact premium cars to varying levels of success. Here are three that Americans never got.

Acura EL

Acura El 4
Photo credit: Acura

I can’t believe it’s not a Civic! Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but the Acura 1.6 EL was a clever way of sidestepping the Integra sedan’s cost. See, back in the ‘90s, the Canadian dollar was in the toilet, and importing the Integra sedan was expensive. Acura still wanted a slice of the entry-level luxury segment but didn’t want the razor-thin margins of a product imported from Japan. Honda was already building the Civic in Alliston, Ontario, so a hasty restyling could produce a much more profitable product for Acura’s Canadian division. Honestly, Acura didn’t even have to do much work. Pluck the styling from a Honda Domani as every panel bolts straight up to a Civic, make some new headlights with amber reflectors, mold an Acura-specific grille, style some new wheels, and bam. One parts bin special that looks just different enough from a Civic to seem like its own thing.

However, the 1.6 EL’s real draw was on the inside. See, Civics of the ‘90s were economical, practical, and inexpensive, but not exactly bastions of refinement. To ensure that the wealthy children of Forest Hill and Yorkdale wouldn’t feel like they were driving a tall can of Molson, Acura beefed up the sound deadening while adding a bunch of optional features unavailable on a Civic. Stuff like keyless entry and seats made from the hides of beasts. Truthfully, the leather upholstery was quite nice, with just the right satin sheen to suggest Italian handiwork.

Acura El 3
Photo credit: Acura

Power came from a single-jingle 1.6-liter D16Y8 four-cylinder engine with VTEC. This reliable lump was considered a leading cause of tinnitus on upper-trim Honda Civics with aftermarket mufflers. Still, hitting that VTEC switchover at 5,600 rpm on the way to unlocking 127 horsepower at 6,600 rpm fit well with Acura’s performance image. It’s not a ton of horsepower, but the 1.6 EL didn’t have a ton of weight to move. Plus, the D16Y8 helped keep 1.6 EL pricing low. The Toronto Star’s Wheels section reports a starting price of $17,800 in 1996 Canadian dollars. Adjust that for inflation, and you’re looking at around $30,380 Canadian right now. That’s like $23,271 in greenbacks, an absolute screaming deal.

So, did the 1.6 EL sell? Well, the Civic was and still is Canada’s best-selling car, so of course the 1.6 EL sold. It accounted for roughly 50 percent of Canadian Acura sales in 1997 and 1998, a wildly successful number. In fact, the outgoing Acura ILX can trace its roots back to the 1.6 EL, and 1.6 EL front clip conversions remain desirable in the Honda community today. Job well done.

BMW 320i

E46 320i 1
Photo credit: Kijiji

While Acura sent a Civic to finishing school, BMW tapped into the Canadian entry-level luxury market by seeing how many features Canadians would sacrifice to get into a 3-Series. While the four-cylinder E36 318i was a bit basic for North American tastes, maybe a tiny inline-six paired with very few creature comforts would do the trick.

Yes, the Canadian-market E46 320i received a tiny 2.2-liter M54B22 inline-six cranking out 168 horsepower and 155 lb.-ft. of torque. Honestly, those aren’t dreadful numbers for 2001. Paired to a five-speed manual gearbox and BMW’s trademark rear-wheel-drive, it made for one seriously involving entry-level luxury car.

However, luxury may as well have been silent on the 320i. Standard equipment included seats, windows, and all the breathable air inside the car. Seriously, even cruise control was an optional extra. Also, don’t expect alloy wheels, heated seats, or a leather-wrapped steering wheel for that sort of money. We’re talking fairly barebones here.

E46 320i 2
Photo credit: Kijiji

Still, the 320i needed to be fairly barebones if BMW wanted to make a profit on its $33,900 list price. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $52,000 Canadian, a princely sum for a low-spec 3-Series. However, BMW’s party piece was the art of the lease. With reasonably strong residuals, the 320i saw a certain degree of success from Canadians looking for a slice of sweet European motoring. You can still find them for sale today in most large Canadian cities, like this one I found in Toronto. Take a look at that buttonless steering wheel in all its glory. In fact, the E46 320i was successful enough that BMW Canada gave things another whirl with the E90 323i, and that car sold unbelievably well.

Mercedes-Benz B-Class

B Class Canada 1
Photo credit: Mercedes-Benz

And now for something completely different. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure who decided to sell the B-Class in Canada. After all, you don’t think of a tiny front-wheel-drive MPV with an available CVT when someone asks you to picture a Benz. Still, buoyed by early success of the Smart Fortwo and huffing the fumes of Canadian pragmatism, Mercedes-Benz quickly got to work preparing the B-Class for hockey run duty, and I’m somewhat thankful it did.

Honestly, the B-Class was a neat design. Its unique construction with the powerplant below the occupant cell gave it extraordinary interior room, and you could shift the B-Class yourself through a standard six-speed manual gearbox. Exterior styling is quite pleasant, like a shortened R-Class, and some of the detailing on the lamps and door handles was actually quite nice. The interior itself was the typical mid-aughts MB blend of soft-touch plastics and tightly-grained textures, so it felt an order of magnitude nicer than what Honda was offering on a CR-V. Sure, the B-Class wasn’t quick, but a starting price of $30,950 more than made up for that. That was just $150 more than a mid-range Honda CR-V EX.

B Class Canada 2
Photo credit: Mercedes-Benz

Unfortunately, sales didn’t exactly take off. Sure, Mercedes shifted a few thousand each year, but the B-Class remained very much a niche product. Of course, it didn’t help that the B-Class suffered from widespread CVT failure. George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association reports seeing “repair bills in the range of $5,500 to $7,000” for a replacement CVT, no small sum on an entry-level Benz. Then there were the general build quality gremlins that would crop up, from electrical issues to interior rattles. The second-generation B-Class, launched for the 2012 model year, attempted to fix some of these issues but still wasn’t perfect. I worked at a Mercedes dealer in high school and saw issues with mundane features like windows and dome lights on gently-used off-lease examples. Interestingly enough, an electric variant of the second-generation B-Class made it to America, largely as a compliance car. Today, the B-Class has been effectively replaced in North America by the Mercedes-Benz GLB, a perfectly good small crossover with plenty of space and a very pleasant interior.

Would They Work Today?

Canadian Luxury Car Montage New

Well, maybe. Let me explain. In a way, the current Acura Integra is a spiritual successor to the 1.6 EL, and I’m not entirely sure about it. Twenty years ago, compact cars were basic, economical transportation. If you wanted, I don’t know, heated seats or automatic climate control in a compact car, you usually had to step up to a midsize car. Now though, toys are cheap, everything is premium, and the standard Civic feels nice enough to displace that part of the market. I’d love to be wrong, but I’m taking a cautious approach here. Switching lanes to the B-Class, I’m honestly amazed that thing got the nod for Canadian sales in the first place. It’s a funky, unique product, but it doesn’t have much of a sales case. Besides, subcompact crossovers are now a thing, often featuring high sales and good margins.

What might work is a stripped-down 3-Series. The Mini-based 2-Series Gran Coupe is not particularly attractive, while the 3-Series sells by the boatload in my neck of the woods. More importantly, BMW already has everything to build a cheaper 3-Series. The current European 320i uses a detuned version of the B48 turbocharged two-liter four-cylinder engine in our 330i, plus low-spec European models feature such cost-saving measures as a smaller infotainment screen, manual cloth seats, and 16-inch wheels. In the U.K., a facelifted 320i starts at £36,670 including VAT. Now, VAT is a roughly 20 percent tax, so let’s eyeball things and say we’re looking at £30,558.33, which converts out to roughly $36,448, or about $47,476 Canadian. Honestly, the old tactic of a low-trim 3-Series for Canada seems worth a shot.

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32 Responses

  1. 2006-2007 Canadians also got the Volkswagen Golf City and Jetta City, basically weirdly facelifted (mostly headlights, grill, taillights) mk4s that were sold alongside mk5s. The then-new mk5 were seen as too expensive for many Canuck consumers and VW of Canada wanted a more affordable model in their lineup. I knew a couple people with a Golf City, one was even yellow!

  2. The EL lead to the CSX, which lead to this:

    The CSX was a lightly restyled 8th gen Civic sedan. Fancier headlights and taillights mostly, styled in Canada. Honda Japan didn’t want the regular 8th gen Civic sedan as their Civic, so they took the CSX and rebadged it as a Civic. So the Japanese Honda Civic is a rebadged Acura CSX, not the other way around like you might expect.

  3. I love our neighbour’s to the north and across the pond. But yeah their both a bit different in they both have English as a standard language but you can’t understand either of the if they are talking fast. LOL

    1. Canada’s like our goody two-shoes sibling who went to the big name college the parents wanted us to go to and married that nice doctor from down the street, while the United States said eff it, took a gap year that became permanent, and found work selling discount vape pens door to door and bar tending on Saturdays. The UK still says they love us both equally, but we secretly know who the favorite is

  4. Speaking of the Acura 1.6EL, how come Acura Canada never sold the TSX Sport Wagon up here?

    Canadians tend to favour wagons and hatchbacks more than Americans do, and yet we missed out on both the Acura TSX Sport Wagon and the Buick Regal TourX.

    A used TSX Sport Wagon, preferably with a manual even though America never got those, would be perfect for me right now.

    1. I always assumed the TSX wagon was from Canada. I saw a few over the years down here near the MX border. I know the local Acura dealers didn’t sell them because I inquired about buying one. They weren’t Euro imports because they had genuine Acura labels on the parts.

  5. When we visited Vancouver back in 2009 we for some reason found our selves waiting near a MB dealer and went in to learn about the B-Class, if sold in the lower 48 we may well have bought on instead of a used Passat Wagon.

  6. I love the B-Class!!! Too bad they never sold it down here 🙁

    Fun fact: the first-gen was certified for the US, and early ones even have California emissions CARB certification.

    MBUSA was *this* close to selling it down here but backed out at the last minute due to euro-dollar exchange rates at the time.

    The CSX Type-S is cool because you get the VTEC with luxury and heated seats.

  7. Driving across Ontario is probably the longest-time state/province transit in North America. Unlike Montana, Texas or California, which are traversed by Interstates, western Ontario is all two-lane and takes for-freaking-ever.

    1. 100 percent true. We used to drive from my hometown of Balmertown, Ontario to the family cottage outside Peterborough and back every year. We used the beautiful North of Superior route. Basically 22-24 hours including pee and lunch breaks with overnight stops in Wawa or further along near Batchiwana Bay. No a/c in dad’s old Fords either. That was a lot of time on warm Detroit vinyl.

  8. I think another reason the B class didn’t sell very well is it’s looks. It’s not a terrible looking car, but it’s not great either. But worst of all, it didn’t look like what people expected a Mercedes Benz to look like.

    Thomas, a deep dive into how our car market up here is compared to the US would make great reading, especially the market in Quebec.

  9. There’s a whole other article topic on Quebec Specials – probably the one place in North America where stripped down, ultra base, small cars are a somewhat viable business proposition.

    1. Indeed. French cars would sell very well here (QC), not because of language obviously, but rather because small and cheap. But that last part is also the historical reason why Quebecers usually bought smaller cars: they were on average poorer than the ROC.
      Volkswagen of America’s decision to axe the Golf from it’s lineup will hurt VW of Canada immensely. Golfs are EVERYWHERE

  10. I also am jealous Canada got the earlier Lancer Evolutions. Technically I view that as the *most* advanced you can get with a small 4 door car.

    Would love to grab a 1996 Evolution some day. So boxy, so sexy. I kinda miss my Evolution IX. May have to snag another one someday.

    1. Huh? Canada didn’t get earlier Evos, other than 15 year old imports. In fact, Canadians had to wait an extra generation after the US got the Evo. Heck, Mitsubishi entered the Canadian market at least a decade after the US. Mid 90s Eclipses were very rare fruit here.

  11. Should follow up on the fact that Quebec seems to be home of the base model manual transmission windup window model cars that never made it to the rest of Canada- oh and they imported Renault R5s up to 1990

    1. We also got Ladas (nationwide) through ’97, Skodas and Dacias in the 80’s, and Hyundai several years before the US – the cheapskate ran strong up here.

      On the other hand, there was also a company who for several years in the late 80’s/early 90’s imported Citroen 2CV’s at relatively premium prices for what amounts to a tin shed on wheels.

  12. A few years ago after having just moved to Detroit and finding out that my WRX was rotted through underneath, I was half seriously looking for an Acura CSX Type-S to replace it since I was so close to Canada now. The CSX was the replacement for the EL and the Type-S was basically just a nicer SI. They even meet the the substantially similar clause requirements and people have imported them under that so I theoretically would have been able to legally get one.

    However after talking to some Canadians, they pointed out to me that any CSX I find in Ontario would be just as rusty as the WRX I was trying to replace and I’d have to look out west for non rusty ones. That coupled with the thought of actually dealing with the paperwork to meet the substantially similar clause made me realize that this is way too much effort for a Civic with different bumpers and leather.

  13. Sometimes this affects trims as well. For example, my ’19 GTI is a “limited edition” Rabbit. Aesthetically, American and Canadian mk7.5 GTI rabbits are identical, with the same 4 colour options, including cornflower blue.

    BUT, the American trim is essentially a base, low-equipment trim, while the Canadian rabbits are almost fully equipped, an odd difference for a “limited edition”. For once we didn’t get shafted! Made it that much more desirable for what it’s worth: premium “Fender” speakers and sub, DCC chassis dampening, bigger infotainment screen, etc. Compared to the autobahn trim, I’m only missing leather (meh, it’s a GTI, plaid is the only answer anyways), NAV, but I have android auto so whatevs, and sunroof, for the first time in my life I’m without…

    About the base BMW trims.. my previous car was an 330xi E90 (changed to 328 the following year) and it was only missing iDrive for the year, but I was dumbfounded when I read in the owner’s manual that 60/40 rear seats were an option.. like who the hell doesn’t take that, if only for seasonal tire changes…

  14. I remember buying my new 98 EL. Admittedly a bit of a step down from my 94 Integra, but you know kids will do that.

    A good car. Not a bad price ($18K) course with a manual.

    Drove it for 7 years/ 400,000km traded it in only because the A/C crapped the bed.

    I remembered that I had to wait a few weeks because the Allison Ontario plant only built the ELs during the last week of the month. The rest of the time it was Civics

    1. Having worked at The Alliston plant since Sept of 1996, We did not only build the EL during the last week of the month. It could be anytime at all. Must have been a dealer that told you that.

  15. I had a 1.6 EL. it was a ‘best kept secret’ car. Same drive train as the Civic si of the time, but less expensive, two extra doors and more refined. It was economical, comfortable on long drives, fun to drive and bullet proof. The only week point was the radio head which died a few times. Honda even replaced it for no charge after the warranty was over and admitted it was just a POS. Most importantly, it introduced a lot of people to the Acura dealer experience that was miles ahead better than Honda’s. I had to move to another shape vehicle for use case reasons and Acura didn’t have an appropriate option, but I know two people who upgraded from the EL to TSX and beyond and are still Acura loyal.
    Sadly, mine was totalled by a drunk driver well before it’s natural expiry date. I see one near me on the road regularly and imagine how well mine would still be running. A very underestimated car.

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