In a market suffering at the hands of wider economic issues, fleet enjoyed growth while retail sales were thin on the ground. Paul Barker delves into the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders’ figures

It’s no great secret that 2011 was a tough year economically, but the fleet portion of new UK car registrations was actually up year-on-year, returning the fleet sales total to seven figures with a final number for 2011 of 1,019,126 units.

That’s a 4.7% rise in an overall market that ended the year 4.4% down overall, thanks to a chronic shortage of retail buyers, although part of the fall is accounted for by the Government’s retail scrappage scheme boosting 2010 sales. In isolation, retail sales were down 14.1%, leaving fleet to take 52.5% of the new car market last year.

“Clearly fleet is the biggest part of the market so that makes it important,” says Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders chief executive Paul Everitt. “With the exception of 08/09 and the obvious impact of the recession, demand has been relatively solid and stable, which is underpinning the new car market and is the route for cars into the used market.”

Diesel was the most popular fuel, topping unleaded for the first time with a 50.6% share of new registrations courtesy of a 4.8% growth in popularity compared with unleaded’s 12.8% fall to 48.1% of the market. Fuel choice has reached an interesting juncture with the price gap between unleaded and diesel widening to record levels just as car manufacturers are introducing clever new efficient petrol technology. The industry is yet to understand whether diesel will continue to grow or whether unleaded fuel will claw it back.

“2011 was the first time the proportion of diesel was greater than petrol. I would say we’re at the upper end but it’s difficult to say we won’t see further increases,” predicts Everitt. “Businesses purchase more on the monthly running cost basis. These people look more at the whole picture and are less influenced by the upfront cost and that’s why diesel is particularly strong. They are more sophisticated and can understand the difference between higher initial cost versus higher running cost. Plus the type of journey they do is more suited to diesel.”

Like diesel, alternative fuels such as hybrids and electric vehicles enjoyed a record year, with an 11.3% growth fuelling a still marginal 1.6% market share. However, that will increase with wider availability of alternative-fuelled vehicles during 2012.

“We are seeing more variety of powertrains come to market and the challenge for users is to understand and pick the technology that is most beneficial to them,” comments Everitt. “If you are doing a large proportion of motorway driving for example, then it’s hard to beat diesel technology for fuel efficiency and cost.”

According to the SMMT, the average new car emissions figure last year dropped 4.2% to 138.1g/km. However, the same rate of decline would see the UK market miss next year’s overall 130g/km European target by 2.3g/km.

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, Vauxhall regained the top spot from Ford in a battle that seems to swing backwards and forwards on an annual basis. Vauxhall ended 2011 1402 units ahead of its arch rival, turning round a 3605-car deficit from 2010, although both were behind the overall market’s growth figure.

German trio Volkswagen, BMW and Audi closed out the top five, all enjoying double-digit growth, with Audi passing Peugeot in the process to make it two premium German brands in the top five fleet manufacturers for the first time. In fact, the French brands didn’t have a great 2011 across the board with Renault dropping behind Nissan and Mercedes with a 22.4% fall in registrations, and Citroen staying just outside the top 10 but recording a 6.0% fall in fleet registrations. Mercedes had a good year with a 23.2% increase.

Further down the table, the Koreans continue to establish themselves as credible corporate brands, with Hyundai ending the year in the top dozen fleet registration brands, one place ahead of sister brand Kia, with both enjoying growth of over 50%.

Mini‘s model expansion with the Countryman has helped drive fleet sales forward as the brand climbed from the edge of the top 20 into the top 15. Volvo grew its fleet sales by 1.0% yet still slid three places as a result of more significant growth by Mini, Skoda and Kia, while Honda‘s lack of a diesel Civic for the whole of last year predictably hampered sales and saw it record a 28.1% drop in registrations.

Land Rover returned to the top 20 at the expense of Fiat, while Suzuki finally appointed a dedicated fleet boss and has passed Mitsubishi, an ailing and now defunct Saab, Smart and Subaru with growth of 182%.

Although Ford was beaten to the top of the manufacturer registrations chart, it grabbed the top two spots in the model rundown thanks to the new Focus, launched 12 months ago, and the Fiesta, with last year’s biggest seller, the Vauxhall Astra, dropping to third. A resurgent Vauxhall Insignia followed the VW Golf to complete the top five, and Mercedes’ C-class caused something of a surprise by outselling the Audi A4 in the fleet sector and making it into the top 10 as a result, although the A4 was subject to a mid-life revision towards the end of last year. Neither could yet catch the BMW 3-series however, and despite being on run-out in preparation for a new model that’s about to launch, BMW’s most popular model still came in at number seven in the list of most-registered fleet vehicles.

Ford’s C-max, now available as a five- or seven-seater, and the Vauxhall Meriva proved small people carriers are as popular as ever, while new entries into the top 50 were the Audi A1, Hyundai’s i20 and i10, the Mini Countryman and Kia’s Sportage.

Looking ahead, the SMMT isn’t predicting much by way of growth during 2012, instead suggesting 2013 would be a time for a “firmer recovery”.

“We’re not expecting to see significant change – we’re looking at a market broadly flat on 2011,” says Everitt. “The fleet and business market has been relatively stable – we don’t expect significant growth or significant deterioration. For our dealer colleagues the private market is key – most people within the business sector are paying monthly so there’s not the big upfront commitment that a retail customer is looking at.”

The latest SMMT predictions for the 2012 UK car market as a whole have it at 1.1% down on the 2011 total, with diesel penetration sliding back slightly though maintaining its position earned for the first time this year as the dominant fuel choice.

Alternative fuels will still be a minority player, but Everitt says the wider employment of electric, plug-in range-extender and hybrid vehicles has to come.

“I think the fact that we’re seeing a variety of vehicle manufacturers put hybrid technology into the marketplace is moving it closer to the mainstream, but it’s still a relatively small part of the market, although it is growing,” he comments. “Electric vehicle and plug-in is a very important development but it will be a number of years rather than next year before we see a substantial number registered.”

But Everitt says the technology is vital, even if uptake is slow. “As an industry we are looking 20-30 years ahead – at both CO2 regulations at a European level as well as what’s happening in the likes of America, China, Japan and other countries.

“We will need a significant proportion of ultra-low carbon vehicles,” he continues. “We need to begin the process of introducing technology to come and setting up the infrastructure.”

The society has 2013’s overall registrations as 3.1% up on this year, taking it to 1.98m cars, with diesel unchanged at just more than half of all new models. The corporate sector will continue to be the cornerstone of these, with its greater stability and reduced buying decision exposure to the emotions of the wider economic climate.

. For more SMMT data on all sectors of the automotive industry, head to