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Fleets drive pandemic-affected UK new car market growth

Date: 06 April 2021

New car registrations in the UK were up by 11.5% year-on-year in March, but still remain some way off pre-Covid figures.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) attributed the yearly rise - the first it has reported since last August - to the way the market was halted completely by the first wave of the pandemic during last March, when sales dropped by 44%, as dealers shut and were unable to continue offering click-and-collect services, as they have done during the current wave of restrictions.

However, compared with average March sales figures for 2010-2019, the market last month was still down by 36.9%.

Fleets can be thanked for last month's growth, with fleet registrations up by 28.7% year-on-year, and business registrations - to fleets with fewer than 25 vehicles - up by 18.6%, while private registrations were down by 4.1%. 

For the first quarter of 2021, the overall market was down by 12% year-on-year. However, this included a fall in fleet registrations of only 5.9%, compared with a 17.3% drop in business registrations and an 18.3% fall in private sales.

March's fuel mix figures saw the biggest year-on-year increase from plug-in hybrid registrations, which grew by 152.2% to take a 6.1% market share.

Mild hybrid petrols were up by 140.9% to take an 11.1% share, and mild hybrid diesels grew by 127.5% for an 8.2% share.

Pure electric cars were up by 88.2% for a 7.7% market share, and conventional hybrids were up by 42% for a 7.6% share.

Meanwhile, petrol cars were down by 10%, though still took 48.4% of the market, while diesel registrations were down by 31.4% for just a 10.8% market share.

SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said: "The past year has been the toughest in modern history and the automotive sector has, like many others, been hit hard. However, with showrooms opening in less than a week, there is optimism that consumer confidence - and hence the market - will return. 

"We know we will see record breaking growth next month given April 2020 was a washout, but a strong and sustainable market is possible if customers are attracted to the choice and competitive offer the industry is able to provide within the safest of showroom environments.

"New plug-in models are already helping drive a recovery but to convince more retail consumers to make the switch, they must be assured these new technologies will be convenient for their driving needs and that means, above all, that the charging infrastructure is there where they need it, and when they need it."

Reacting to the figures, Lex Autolease head of consultancy Ashley Barnett said he was concerned that dropping registrations meant older, less efficient cars would be on the road for longer.

He said: "The uplift in registrations is to be welcomed as dealerships across the country get ready to open their doors once again as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

"However, today's figures point to a concerning drop in the rate at which newer and cleaner cars are joining the UK's roads, based on a typical four-year replacement cycle. In the 12 months to March 2017, there were 2.7m new car registrations, compared to just 1.5m registered over the last year. 

"This shortfall highlights that more than one million cars on today's roads are older and less efficient, posing a potential roadblock in the ongoing work to achieve net-zero."

Barnett said that continued growth in EV registrations was welcome - but that the industry would have to wait to see the impact of the UK Government's recent cut to the plug-in car grant over the coming months.

He added: "We're continuing to see a growing demand from customers to align their fleets with their corporate sustainability plans. 

"The government's recent consultation on mandatory climate-related financial disclosure will place a greater emphasis on the grey fleet and its role in reducing overall emissions."