New car registrations rose by 11.5 per cent last month compared to March 2020, latest figures show.
Data published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders today (Apr 6) reveals 283,964 cars were registered during the month, up 11.5 per cent on March 2020.
It’s the first time registrations have grown since August 2020, but March 2021’s figures are still -36.9 per cent adrift from a 10-year March average of 450,189 registrations.
The SMMT says 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, it said, the industry has averaged around 7,400 a day during the past decade and current levels are closer to 5,600 a day.
The body says showrooms opening next week will allow an opportunity for dealers to recover some of the £22.2bn lost in turnover since March 2020.
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 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.
‘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.’
Plug-in vehicles reached their highest ever volume in March 2021. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) took a combined market share of 13.9 per cent, up from 7.3 per cent last year as the number of models available to customers increased from 72 to 116.
Registrations of BEVs increased by 88.2 per cent to 22,003 units, while PHEVs rose by 152.2 per cent to 17,330. Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) also rose 42 per cent to reach 21,599 registrations.
The Vauxhall Corsa, meanwhile, was March’s best-seller and returned to the top of the table – it also leads the year-to-date figures.
What the industry says
Solid and positive performance
Given the environment, March’s performance was solid and a positive reflection of how well retailers have embraced online retailing. As we go into April and forecourts begin to re-open, all the signs are positive that the demand is there as consumers flock to finally see, touch and smell the new car that they’ve researched over lockdown.
So, whilst the key sales month of March was significantly down on normal volumes, we’re confident we’ll see retailers make up for it with a very strong April performance.
Ian Plummer, commercial director, Auto Trader
A much-needed boost
Whether it was the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel or the arrival of the new licence plates, March’s uptick in sales provided a much-needed boost to dealers.
These figures are a sign that there is plenty of pent-up demand for new cars, and dealers are understandably hoping for a strong recovery in the coming months.
James Fairclough, CEO, AA Cars
Future working patterns are key
With last year’s March figures encompassing the UK’s last few weeks of pre-Covid spending patterns, we expected to see new car sales down year-on-year across the board. However, fleet and business sales have bucked this trend. Whilst consumer sales fell by over four per cent versus last year, businesses looking to invest in a post-lockdown future have pushed overall sales to an 11.5 per cent rise versus March 2020.
Looking further ahead, the future of working patterns is seen by many as key to the fate of the UK vehicle market. People need to know what their day-to-day schedules – and travel requirements – are going to look like before they commit to a new car. Once this certainty comes, we can expect to see pent-up demand from everyday consumers pushing sales in an even more positive direction.
Karen Johnson, head of retail & wholesale at Barclays Corporate Banking
Enthusiasm needs to be tempered
Although positive March figures will be a welcome relief after some disappointing numbers in January and February, enthusiasm needs to be tempered a little. Although dealerships were able to seamlessly switch back to offering a fully online buying experience when the country went into lockdown for the third time at the beginning of January, new car sales have been breaking records for all the wrong reasons this year.
The UK new car industry needs a prolonged period of positive news to shake off its malaise. New car sales need a mighty boost to rise out of the doldrums, but a spring and summer of solid sales should really turn things around.
Alex Buttle, director, Motorway.co.uk
Showrooms staying open is crucial
March results show the resilience of the industry, and its ability to adopt the use of new technologies. Many feared dealers would suffer far worse than this in what is usually the biggest month for registrations, but today’s results are a great testament to the rapid growth in online selling and click-and-collect services, and highlight just some of the transformation in how we buy cars that is likely here to stay forever more.
However, the better-than-expected results can’t hide the fact the figures are still well below a normal March – and first quarter. It will be crucial that showrooms can operate openly throughout the rest of the year, as the sector needs to start recovering from the crisis, in order to protect the 850,000 jobs associated with the industry.’
Jim Holder, editorial director, What Car?
April could be a bumper month for used cars
Prevented from engaging with the full dealer experience in over four months, we expect that some consumers will have delayed making a purchase until they can give tyres a kick and have a look under the bonnet.
Yet, while we continue our slow return to normality – on the continent coronavirus remains rampant – which continues to have a significant impact on new car production, causing widespread delays on factory orders and bespoke builds. Therefore, for those wanting as-new models, the used car market remains their only option – where they can make significant savings on pre-registered stock.
An influx of new customers could also arrive from those who extended finance deals over the past year to overcome uncertainties around the pandemic. At the same time, the coming months will see Britain’s workforce return to offices and city centres in greater numbers. But nervousness around the safety of public transport could result in more people turning to private vehicles.
Karen Hilton, chief commercial officer, Heycar
Customers may have to wait
For individual purchases, click and collect has proven an important lifeline throughout the pandemic, but sales figures suggest it is not a real substitute for the salesroom floor yet.
With a new ‘21’ plate and pent-up demand, the re-opening of showrooms later this month should see an enthusiastic return of consumers, many of whom have improved disposable incomes as a result of limited spending opportunities during lockdown.
If the expected uptick in demand happens, the ongoing shortage of semiconductors could have challenging implications for manufacturers that continue to manage the supply of vehicles to dealers and their customers. Consumers may need to wait longer than expected for the cars they want.
Michael Woodward, UK automotive lead, Deloitte
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