New car registrations up as dealers prepare to open

Registrations have grown for the first time since the start of the pandemic, with 283,964 new cars hitting UK roads in March – 29,280 more than in the same month last year.

Growth of 11.5% – albeit compared with the month in which the first national lockdown began and sales tumbled 44.4% – is positive news for the industry as dealers prepare to reopen showrooms on 12 April.

Dealerships were forced to close their doors on 5 January along with all other non-essential retailers when the current restrictions were brought into force to combat rising Covid-19 infections.

However, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says that the latest number remains 36.9% down on the 10-year March average and that 58,032 fewer new cars were registered in the first quarter of 2021 compared with 12 months ago.

The SMMT estimates that this shortfall has cost the industry £1.8 billion. It believes that 8300 new cars will need to be registered every business day for the rest of the year for the market to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Diesel vehicles performed worst of all in March, with 31.4% fewer registered than in March 2020. Diesels are 46.9% down for the year to date and now represent just 11.4% of registrations in the UK.

A total of 137,557 petrol vehicles were registered last month, 10% down on the 152,816 shifted in March 2020. But registrations of mild-hybrid vehicles continue to rise, up 134.9% on last year’s levels and now accounting for 19.3% of the overall market.

That’s only slightly behind battery-electric, plug-in hybrid and hybrid vehicles combined, which shared 21.4% of the market in March. A total of 22,003 fully electric cars were registered, up by 88.2%. This was in spite of the sudden reduction of the government’s plug-in car grant, which fell from £3000 to £2500 and can now only be applied to cars costing less than £35,000, rather than £50,000.

Meanwhile, the number of plug-in hybrids registered shot up from 6872 to 17,330 – a 152.2% rise.

“The past year has been the toughest in modern history and the automotive sector has, like many others, been hit hard,” said SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes. “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.”