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New car registrations fell 13 per cent in April but ‘there is light at end of the tunnel’, says SMMT

  • New car registrations crashed 12.9 per cent in April to 141,583 cars
  • SMMT has revised full-year forecast UPWARDS to 1.86m
  • Vauxhall Corsa was April’s best-seller

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New car registrations were down nearly 13 per cent last month compared to a pre-pandemic April average, new figures show.

A total of 141,583 units were registered in April, according to data released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) today (May 5) – 12.9 per cent lower than the average seen pre-pandemic between 2010 and 2019.

Last month’s figures were a 30-fold increase on April 2020 when just 4,321 cars were registered, but this comparison is skewed by showrooms being shut due to lockdown restrictions a year ago.

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Retail demand saw the most significant recovery, said the SMMT, rising from just 871 registrations last April to 61,935.

However, April 2021’s consumer registrations were still down 14.5 per cent on the 10-year average.

Total plug-in vehicle market share broadly followed the trend seen in recent months, accounting for just over one in eight vehicles, or 13.2 per cent.

Unusually, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), at 6.8 per cent of the market, were more popular than battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) at 6.5 per cent, following cuts to the plug-in car grant.

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Monthly BEV uptake was down compared with Q1 2021 overall, however, as they had been running at 7.5 per cent of total registrations, said the SMMT.

Overall registrations for 2021 now stand at 567,108 units, some 32.5 per cent down on the average recorded over the past decade.

However, the SMMT said the full impact of showrooms reopening has ‘yet to be realised’.

The organisation also said it had revised its forecasts upwards from 1.83m to 1.86m – a 13.9 per cent increase on 2020, but that’s still down 20 per cent, or 2.33m registrations recorded between 2010 and 2019.

BEVs are now expected to account for 8.9 per cent of registrations by year-end – down from the 9.3 per cent initially forecast in January.

The SMMT says this revision downwards is in light of March’s changes to the Plug-in Car Grant.

PHEVs, meanwhile, are anticipated to take a 6.3 per cent market share, and total plug-in vehicles should comprise 15.2 per cent of all cars registered in 2021.

Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: ‘After one of the darkest years in automotive history, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

‘A full recovery for the sector is still some way off, but with showrooms open and consumers able to test drive the latest, cleanest models, the industry can begin to rebuild.

‘Market confidence is improving, and we now expect to finish the year in a slightly better position than anticipated in February, largely thanks to the more upbeat business and consumer confidence created by the successful vaccine rollout.

‘That confidence should also translate into another record year for electric vehicles, which will likely account for more than one in seven new car registrations.’

The Vauxhall Corsa was April’s best-selling new car and also continues to be the best-selling car year-to-date.

What the industry says

Challenges aren’t over

While these figures suggest a positive return to face-to-face trading, it is clear that the coming months will be critical to the bounce back. We also anticipate that demand will remain strong.

However the concerns for the industry are twofold. The first is to ensure showrooms can remain open for the remainder of the year and beyond, with another lockdown potentially ruinous for many operators. The second issue is around vehicle supply.’

‘With restricted supply in the new market, the used market is likely to see a further increase in activity, especially for nearly new models, which will likely lift used prices further.Above all else, it is clear that the challenges aren’t yet over.’

Jim Holder, editorial director, What Car?

Little surprise

As a result of forecourts being able to welcome back customers, it’s little surprise that today’s figures show a surge in registrations compared with last April.

We are seeing significant indications of how the pandemic has transformed the nation’s car-buying behaviour for good. This is chiefly demonstrated in a surge in customers who are now prepared to complete their entire purchase journey online.

Our data indicates that since November as many as one in ten heycar users took this approach. We’re seeing particularly high interest in more remote areas of the country, away from large urban centres – where there are likely to be less showrooms nearby.

Karen Hilton, chief commercial officer, Heycar

Keep the champagne on ice

While the percentage surge in new car registrations is insanely high, the champagne will have to be put on ice for the time being, as the new car industry has a lot of ground to make up on pre-pandemic levels in terms of raw sales figures.

While pent-up demand is clearly showing itself with showroom doors in England and Wales opening in the second half of April, this upwards trend needs to be consistent throughout 2021 to make up for the 2020-shaped hole in lost sales.

The headwinds for growth are there – we have a clearer roadmap for recovery and the market is looking promising once again with a lot of optimism about surging EV sales.

Alex Buttle, director, Motorway

Respectable result

April’s performance is a respectable result and strengthens our confidence in a solid and sustained return to market health.

It’s not surprising the reopening of showrooms has had an extremely positive effect. However, whilst consumers clearly still place huge value on the showroom experience and many prefer to complete their purchase in person, most of the digital-first behaviours we observed during lockdown have continued.

Most people favour a blended retail experience, which includes significantly more digital touchpoints than before. Crucially, this is something consumers appear set to continue with.

Ian Plummer, commercial director, Auto Trader

More reasons for optimism

Comparing this April to last reveals little, other than just how hard the industry was hit at the start of the first lockdown, when dealers were only just exploring the click-and-collect and delivery options they successfully embraced later in the year.

To get a better sense of the current health of the market, we need to compare it with pre-pandemic levels. Although this April’s figures still lag behind those of previous Aprils, sales are edging closer to pre-pandemic levels, and there are further reasons for optimism now forecourts have reopened for business.

March was a successful month for a start, bolstered by new number plates, and the early evidence from the reopening of retail and hospitality is that people are ready to spend money saved during successive lockdowns.

James Fairclough, chief executive, AA Cars 

Next month’s results will give better picture

With showrooms having reopened on April 12, and both business and consumer confidence on the rise, it will be disappointing to some that new car sales lag behind their pre-pandemic levels.

However, there is still hope that the sector could be set for a sustained period of recovery. After a year of restricted spending opportunities, savings and disposable income for some consumers are stronger than ever. Combined with more affordable financing costs and some hesitancy on the use of shared transport, the stage is set for car sales to rebound.

Next month’s results will be more indicative of true consumer demand and will allow us to better assess the potential speed of the recovery.

Michael Woodward, UK automotive lead at Deloitte

Sales of battery electric vehicles set to continue

Demand for new cars has been bubbling under the surface of the UK vehicle market for more than 12 months. Many will hope that April’s registration figures mark the moment this pressure finally burst through, as sales rose over 3,000 per cent versus the previous year.

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Looking further ahead, a growth in demand for battery electric vehicles seems likely to continue – with sales in April increasing over 500 per cent versus last year.

This sentiment is further illustrated by the growing presence of hybrids on UK roads, which have become popular in the current market as infrastructure for electric vehicles continues to develop.

Karen Johnson, head of retail and wholesale at Barclays Corporate Banking

James Batchelor

James – or Batch as he’s known – started at Car Dealer in 2010, first as the work experience boy, eventually becoming editor in 2013. He worked for Auto Express as editor-at-large and was the face of Carbuyer’s YouTube reviews. In 2020, he went freelance and now writes for a number of national titles and contributes regularly to Car Dealer.

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