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Investigation: Which car trends are going in and out of fashion with today’s car buyers? We chat to dealers large and small to find out

4 months ago

It’s well documented that sales of electric vehicles are on the rise in the UK, while the popularity of petrols and diesels are waning. 

Data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders shows registrations of pure electric cars totalled 108,205 in 2020 – up 185.9 per cent on 2019’s figures.

Add in hybrids and plug-in hybrids and total sales come to 285,199 – up 66.7 per cent on 2019, meaning electrics, hybrids and PHEVs account for 17.5 per cent of the new car market.   

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In contrast, petrol and diesels saw a -39 per cent and -55 per cent change respectively – the former falling from 1,482,409 (in 2019) to 903,961 and the latter dropping from 581,774 in 2019 to 261,772 in 2020. 

With this significant shift in mind, what else is changing with the types of cars consumers are buying and what are people’s car buying priorities in 2021?

We spoke to a range of dealers to find out. 

Big automatic SUVs still appeal

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James Waitt has been in the motor trade for more than 40 years, and since 2004 has been trading as Avenue Cars in Winchester, Hampshire, dealing in all kinds of used cars.

When asked about declining markets, Waitt immediately identified cars with manual gearboxes. 

‘We’re definitely seeing fewer manuals,’ he told Car Dealer. ‘The demand for automatic exceeds supply. We can’t seem to find enough of them.

‘People like high-up, SUV automatics. We don’t sell many small cars – of the cars we do trade in we sell a lot of big cars, Land Rovers, that sort of thing, as we’re in a rural area.’

While autos are clearly popular now, Waitt expressed his unhappiness with how fragile these transmissions can be, stating automatics tend to cause him ‘nothing but grief’.

Big SUVs still appeal to rural used car buyers

He added: ‘Automatics don’t always seem to work. They have issues and are poor. The Volkswagen DSGs don’t work, and it’s the same with the Peugeot and Renault ones.

‘And the Ford Powershift automatic gearbox is terrible as well. But everyone wants to buy them.’

EVs and hybrids, on the other hand, actually aren’t big sellers for Waitt. He believes buyers are ‘scared of new technology’ and, being located in a rural area, are hesitant to buy one due to range anxiety. As a result, they usually stick to more familiar cars and opt for an SUV.   

Waitt added: ‘We’re struggling to sell hybrids. They don’t sell as well as we would have thought. I think the idea around hybrids is lovely, but the reality is people aren’t buying them.

‘We have also stocked EVs. I must admit they’ve been slow to sell, but we have sold them. We haven’t done particularly well out of them. As a profit unit, they’re not great.

‘The price of them are too expensive when you compare them to normal little petrols. They’re usually a third of the price. The second-hand buyer is different to the new car buyer.’

Electric revolution

Speaking of new car buyers, Hendy Kia Ferndown is witnessing the complete opposite and is experiencing significant amounts of interest in its hybrid and electric range of vehicles.

The site on Wimborne Road East, Ferndown, has been a Kia dealership since 2009 having previously been operated by Westover and George Hartwell.

Tony Speed, salesman, told Car Dealer: ‘Enquiries regarding EVs are growing as are plug-in hybrids. New cars manufactured with hybrid technology are more accessible throughout our range now, so people have more choice.

‘Diesels are a lot less popular – petrols to some extent too. The definite flavour is hybrid and electric.’

One of Kia’s fully-electric models is the e-Niro and Speed mentioned this is the car most customers enquire about.

He thinks this is due to the compact crossover’s ‘long range and good size, which in the all-electric world is hard to come by at its price point’.

Speed added: ‘From a moral point of view, people want to get a car that isn’t harmful to the environment. This is definitely egged on by the 2030 government ban regarding the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

‘And that’s all you see in the press – diesels and petrols being talked about in a negative way. People are afraid of that. They’re worried about coming across issues with petrol and diesels in the future.

‘What customers do in response is future proof their next car by buying a hybrid or a fully electric one.’

Speed also agreed with the decline of cars fitted with manual gearboxes, but added this ‘goes hand-in-hand with hybrid and electric as they’re all automatics’. He also said that people taking their driving test in automatic cars only – in order to pass faster – contributes to this as well.

The easy life

Josh Clayman is the head of sales at family-run Brown Autos – a Brighton-based used car dealer. His father and brother own the business and combined have around 60 years’ experience in the trade.

Clayman agreed with Hendy Kia’s Tony Speed on the driving test factor, commenting that ‘a lot of young people are now doing automatic-only licences, just for the ease of passing’. Another point he added was that elderly people don’t particularly want to deal with operating the clutch.

However, in Clayman’s opinion, these aren’t the only reasons why automatics are so sought after.

He said: ‘I think as we’re located in a town environment, autos are favoured due to reducing the work of clutch control in traffic.

‘We’re on a main road and constantly it’s stop/start. People generally don’t want to have to deal with a manual in those situations.’

The dealer’s city surroundings play a part in people tending to opt for small cars, more specifically compact petrols, according to Clayman.

He said: ‘For us, small automatic petrols seem to be the hot cars to have at the moment – that’s what we’re seeing. People want cheap tax, good economy and to easily get from A-to-B.

‘They don’t like the thought of diesels anymore because of the bad press. That being said, we’re reassuring customers that it’s a long time before they’ll be forced out.’

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In terms of electrified vehicles, Clayman added that hybrids tended to ‘hang around’.

There was a clear difference as to what customers wanted when visiting the new and used car dealerships we spoke to – and location played the biggest part in car demand at the different sites.

But there was one thing that all of them agreed on and that was death of the good old manual gearbox. What a shame…

Oliver Young

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