2023 was a record year for South African vehicle exports - these were the top exports

VWSA exported its millionth Polo in 2022, and the hatchback continues to be the country’s top automotive export.

VWSA exported its millionth Polo in 2022, and the hatchback continues to be the country’s top automotive export.

Published Jan 11, 2024


Despite the well known logistical challenges at local ports, 2023 was a record year for South African vehicle exports.

Naamsa reported this week that manufacturers shipped 396,290 vehicles abroad last year, which was a 12% gain over the 2022 numbers and also 2.4% higher than the previous all-time record of 387,092 vehicles exported in 2019.

The majority of these were passenger car exports, which grew by 7% to 255,430 units, but light commercial and bakkie exports grew by an encouraging 24.7% to 140,061 units.

South African vehicle exports 2019 - 2023. Sources: Naamsa, Lightstone Auto.

South Africa’s top vehicle exports: 2023

  • Volkswagen Polo - 101,468
  • Mercedes C-Class - 86,754
  • Toyota Hilux - 71,014
  • Ford Ranger - 64,872
  • BMW X3 - 57,423
  • Isuzu D-Max - 6,385
  • Nissan Navara - 3,823
  • Toyota Corolla Cross - 1,745
  • Toyota Fortuner - 1,613
  • Nissan NP200 - 332
  • Toyota Corolla Quest - 86

If ever you underestimate the importance of exports to the local manufacturing industry, just take another glance at the figures above.

South Africa’s top-selling vehicle, the Toyota Hilux, managed a local volume of 37,382 units for the whole of 2023 (see the top 30 here) but our top five exports all surpassed that number significantly, with Volkswagen’s Polo even creeping above the 100,000 mark.

VWSA plans to produce even more Polos this year, with the Kariega plant soon to become the sole supplier to Europe. But with the Polo set to be discontinued internationally between 2028 and 2029, the local manufacturer will have to plug that gap with other models. A small SUV is currently under consideration and an announcement is due to be made in February.

According to Naamsa, two out of every three vehicles produced in South Africa are exported.

The industry body expects the upward momentum to continue for SA exports in the year ahead, although the longer-term global economic outlook remains clouded by inflation risks, conflict in the Middle East and the effects of climate change.

“Vehicle exports, a crucial element of the domestic OEMs’ financial viability and sustainability, remained robust and continued their upward momentum in 2023, despite slowing global growth owing to geo-political tensions, supply chain disruptions, inflationary pressures and multi-year high interest rates in major export markets,” Naamsa said.

Perhaps the biggest risk to South Africa’s vehicle exporters is the rapid shift to electric cars in international markets. This is particularly the case for Europe, which plans widespread bans of internal combustion vehicles in the 2030s. The EU is South Africa’s largest export destination due to current trade agreements that give the country a duty-free advantage.

South Africa’s Electric Vehicle White Paper, released in late 2023, focuses on securing manufacturing and export contracts for local OEMs, rather than incentivising local consumption of electric cars - which will take place at a much later stage due to the current power crisis.

With the South African motor manufacturing industry currently accounting for around six percent of GDP, the importance of encouraging new and renewed export contracts cannot be understated.

IOL Motoring