The UK new car market recorded its first ‘growth’ since August 2020, with 29,280 more units registered during March compared to the same month last year, according to figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
However, the month represents the anniversary of the first lockdown in March 2020, when the pandemic brought Britain to a standstill and registrations fell by -44.4%.
Compared with the 2010-2019 March average of 450,189, registrations were down -36.9%, with 283,964 units registered. So far, 2021 has seen 58,032 fewer cars registered compared to January to March last year, equivalent to a loss of £1.8 billion in turnover during the first quarter.
For the sector to return to its pre-pandemic levels, around 8,300 new cars will need to be registered every single trading day for the rest of the year. By comparison, the industry has averaged around 7,400 a day during the past decade and current levels are closer to 5,600 a day.
Click and collect provided a lifeline for the sector – made possible by manufacturers and their networks successfully investing in digital channels. Click and collect does not, however, offer the consumer the same experience and excitement as a showroom environment. With dealerships reopening their doors next week, customers can look forward to choosing and configuring a new car, safely, in person from the wide choice available, as dealers attempt to recover some of the £22.2 billion lost in turnover since March 2020.
While overall registrations were slightly up compared to last year, growth came almost entirely from fleets, which saw a 28.7% increase in registrations. Retail consumer demand remained depressed, falling by -4.1% compared to March 2020 as showrooms remained closed for the duration of the month.
The shift to new technologies is continuing, however, with plug-in vehicle demand reaching its highest ever volume. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) took a combined market share of 13.9%, up from 7.3% last year as the number of models available to customers increased from 72 to 116. Registrations of BEVs increased by 88.2% to 22,003 units, while PHEVs rose by 152.2% to 17,330. Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) also rose 42.0% to reach 21,599 registrations.
Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, 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, there is optimism that consumer confidence – and hence the market – will return.
“We know we will see record breaking growth 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.”
RAC spokesman Rod Dennis said: “Despite the ongoing effect of the pandemic, when it comes to electric car sales March was a remarkable month – it was the best single month for sales of new zero-emission electric cars on record, beating last December by less than 100 sales. Plug-in hybrids also sharply rose in popularity, with the number sold 40% higher than in September, the last best month for sales.
“Fleet sales last month were particularly strong. Having a healthy fleet market for battery electric vehicles is vital, as these will be what end up on the second hand car market in the coming years. In turn, this will help ensure that cleaner vehicles are within the reach of many more drivers who have modest budgets.
“The RAC is leading the way when it comes to supporting drivers to go electric, with an increasing number of patrol vans fitted with emergency mobile chargers. And on the rare occasions when an electric car needs to be recovered, most vans feature the RAC’s All-Wheels-Up system allowing the vast majority to be safely rescued with no need for a flatbed.”
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