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SALES FIGURES: Sales sanity restored, for now

Date: 27 July 2010

After the tumultuous past 12 months, it's warming to see the half-year registration figures show some gentle progress in the right direction, reports Paul Barker

Between recession, contract extensions and the Government's scrappage scheme that skewed the market towards private sales rather than the flagging business car market, the first half of 2009 wasn't the most promising period for manufacturers looking to sell into the fleet arena.

A year on and things are looking more steady, if not improving spectacularly. The scrappage scheme, which only finally finished a couple of months ago, is largely responsible for the fact that private registrations are still running significantly above their fleet counterparts, although since the scheme finished, fleet registrations have returned to a position of slight power over the retail sector.

Fleet fightback

In the first half of 2010, 1,108,662 new cars were registered, 19.9% or 183,707 more than the troubled first six months of 2009. Fleets accounted for 519,933 of them, which is almost 75,000 (16.8%) up on this time last year, while retail sales are up 22.7% or 108,957 units at 588,729. But expect fleet to reign in and probably comfortably pass retail in the second half of the year, as the 2009 scrappage scheme distorts the year-on-year figures once more.

Ford takes its usual position at the top of the sales chart despite controversy over the number of price hikes the firm has implemented in recent times, although the company has recently announced some moves in the opposite direction. Ford is, however, the only manufacturer in the top 10 to fall behind its 2009 half-year figure, with the 0.8% fall comparing with the next-worst result, that of Vauxhall's, which is 11.5% up on the 2009 half-year figure.

Ford's arch-rival in fleet registration terms sits 6887 units behind the table topper at the halfway point, but ahead of VW, Audi, Peugeot and BMW in a top six that mirrors that of June 2009.

There are, however, plenty of changes below that. Renault's resurgence from a darker time, when it pulled back from any unprofitable business, sees it climb back up thanks to a 182.2% year-on-year increase. A Renault spokesman said the firm isn't ploughing excessive numbers of cars through distress channels, a move that caused some of its previous problems. "We are back in rental in a profitable way and at the levels not more than the retail market share," he said. Citroen moved into the top 10 at the expense of Toyota, which slid four places to the back of a trio of three brands separated by just 1635 units, with Mercedes the meat in that particular sandwich.

Hyundai is the other big mover in the top 15, coming from a position of 22 at the end of June 2009. A Hyundai spokesman put the charge up the table down to a number of factors: firstly, the scrappage scheme generated phenomenal retail demand that limited fleet supply in 2009, but when the scheme ended it freed up supplies for the fleet sector in 2010; and secondly, the brand benefited from the raised profile of being one of the big winners during scrappage.

Others performing well in the first half of the year included Volvo, Seat and Kia, while Toyota and Honda joined Ford in recording figures down on the first half of 2009 despite the overall fleet market being up 16.8%.

Golf breakthrough

Only the Volkswagen Golf broke into the Ford and Vauxhall monopoly of the top seven places of fleet model registrations. Ford's Focus topped the table ahead of its Vauxhall Astra rival, a pattern repeated with the Fiesta beating the Corsa to third.

But the Focus versus Astra gap closed significantly compared with this time last year, where the Astra was on run-out for the previous model ahead of the current one's appearance. What was a gap of nearly 15,000 units a year ago is now a shade over 2500.

The top new entry to the registration chart is Peugeot's 3008 MPV-hatchback crossover, breaking into the top 30. Citroen's C3 Picasso at 41, the Hyundai i20 and the Citroen C3 are all also models in this year's top 50 that weren't in the top 100 last year.

Those models sliding out of the top 100 include previous high-flyers such as the Toyota Rav4, Mazda MX-5 and Honda Accord.

The upper medium sector, led by the Ford Mondeo, BMW 3-series and Vauxhall Insignia, continued to see its share diminish in the first half of 2010, with the overall class result showing a 7.3% drop in registrations. In terms of the amount of cars sold, the sector is now significantly behind superminis, with a market share of 15.6% versus 16.6%, while lower medium models continue to lead the way with 30.3% of fleet registrations. There was strong growth across several other areas, with MPVs of all sizes proving particularly strong.

The second half of 2010 should see the fleets sector regaining its rightful place ahead of retail, as the market hopefully continues its gentle process of recovery, economic conditions allowing.

But there have been several firms, such as Hyundai and a resurgent Renault, gaining ground at the expensive of some of the players lurking around the bottom half of the top 10, and the responses in the second half of the year will be interesting to watch.