The impact of this unprecedented global coronavirus pandemic continues to distort planning, predictions, and expectations in the motor trade just as it has done in many other industries. UK showrooms were essentially closed until May 2021, while lockdown, homeworking and furlough arrangements have left many motorists with more disposable income than anticipated.
Elsewhere, the government and car manufacturers have continued to relentlessly promote the economic, environmental and socially responsible merits of electric and hybrid technologies to the motoring public.
But how much do the latest sales figures really tell us about the current state and future potential of the UK’s new car market?
According to data published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), year-on-year new car sales in May 2021 rose by an incredible 674.1% compared with the same period in the spring of 2020.
Viewed against the backdrop of pandemic measures, this almost eightfold market increase, representing 156,737 new car sales for the month, was hardly the bombshell it might once have been. Indeed, many dealerships were probably more shocked to find themselves unexpectedly in a position to negotiate some kind of ‘pandemic rebate’ on their annual motor trade insurance!
Sales volume aside, the May list of best-selling cars still had a familiar look, with the VW Golf (4,181 sales), Vauxhall Corsa (3,643 sales) and VW Polo (3,313 sales) occupying the top three slots. But the real story is the growing presence of alternatively fuelled vehicles within the new-car market.
For the moment at least, it’s PHEV’s (plug-in hybrids) which are proving the most desirable acquisitions with 9,855 sold in May – a healthy increase of 1,091.7% compared with May 2020.
Despite pandemic restrictions, SMMT report that pure petrol and mild hybrid vehicles presently account for 60.4% of 2021 registrations, with pure diesel and mild hybrid diesels accounting for an 18.0% market share for the year so far.
This compares favourably with last year’s totals of 64.6% and 22.4% respectively and follows an early May announcement from the government that the number of ultra-low-emission vehicles in use on UK roads now exceeds 500,000.
However, insurance currently remains something of a drawback for electric car owners, with WhatCar magazine advising readers that ‘insuring an electric or hybrid car can be more expensive than insuring a car with a petrol or diesel engine’.
So, while it’s true many corporate names already use all-electric delivery fleets, eco-friendly start-up enterprises seeking a low-cost van insurance policy will need to look at their costings very carefully indeed.
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Cumulative car registrations for 2021 reached 723,845 by 31 May. Yet even though this is 42.5% more than the corresponding 2020 figures, the RAC caution that car sales are 14.7% below comparable pre-pandemic totals and 13.2% down on the 10-year average for May.
Furthermore, that figure for total 2021 vehicle registrations to date (723,845) is still 29.1% below the 2010-2019 average.
Summing up May’s results for 2021, Mike Hawes, chief executive of SMMT, said: “With dealerships back open and a brighter, sunnier, economic outlook, May’s registrations are as good as could reasonably be expected.”
And addressing the longer-term development of electric car sales, he added: “Demand for electrified vehicles is helping encourage people into showrooms, but … a long-term strategy for market transition and infrastructure investment is required.”
Meanwhile, highlighting his organisation’s own efforts to support battery electric cars, RAC spokesman Simon Williams reported: “With more and more of our patrol vans being kitted out with our industry-leading lightweight EV chargers, fears about running out of juice mid-journey are fast disappearing, which should give even more drivers the confidence to make the switch to electric.”