Worst March for 24 years as new car supply problems hit dealers hard

  • Just over 243,000 cars were registered in plate-change month of March – down 14.3 per cent on March ’21
  • It means last month was the worst March since 1998
  • Figures branded ‘deeply disappointing’ but SMMT
  • Tesla Model Y was the month’s best-seller

Time 9:24 am, April 5, 2022

Despite dealers reporting strong order banks for 22-reg cars last month, it was the worst March for new car registrations since 1998 new figures show.

The latest data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show the number of new car registered in March 2022 slumped by 14.3 per cent compared to March 2021.

A total of 243,479 cars were registered during the month – results that have branded as ‘massively disappointing’.

Even though showrooms were shut in March 2021 due to social distancing regulations, March 2022 was still down ‘underscoring the long-term impact the pandemic is wreaking on the industry’, said the SMMT.

Ongoing chip shortages were also blamed for stifling new car sales, as well as concerns over the long-term effects of the Ukraine crisis.

It means the total figure for Q1 is down by 1.9 per cent on 2021.

Private registrations actually grew by 8.2 per cent, but overall figures were hit massively by a 34.4 per cent fall in fleet registrations.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) continued to grow, notching up a 78.7 per cent rise, with over 39,000 BEVs leaving dealerships in March.

The SMMT also warned ‘economic headwinds’ such as rising energy costs, fuel costs, inflation and a squeeze on household incomes ‘could impact new vehicle demand’.

It added that with grants for BEVs being available until March 2023 and the lower running costs they attract, ‘there are significant benefits for drivers who can order new vehicles now’.

SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said: ‘March is typically the biggest month of the year for the new car market, so this performance is deeply disappointing and lays bare the challenges ahead.

‘While demand remains robust, this decline illustrates the severity of the global semiconductor shortage, as manufacturers strive to deliver the latest, lowest emission vehicles to eagerly awaiting customers.

‘Placing orders now will be beneficial for those looking to take advantage of incentives and lower running costs for electric vehicles, especially as the Ukraine crisis could affect supply still further.

‘With increasing household and business costs, government must do all it can to support consumers so that the growth of electric vehicles can be sustained and the UK’s ambitious net zero timetable delivered.’

March’s best-seller was the Tesla Model Y with 6,464 units followed by the smaller Model 3 with 6,457.

Year-to-date continues to be led by the Vauxhall Corsa with just under 10,000 units so far.

What the industry says

Numbers reflect orders made months ago

The figures show dealerships enjoying healthy demand for new cars, although the industry’s lingering supply chain issues mean the traditional March rush for new registration plates has been flattened out by continued stock shortages.

Encouragingly sales of electric vehicles (EVs) have doubled compared to last year, but we should also bear in mind the lack of available new car stocks means these figures reflect orders often made several months ago. There was already massive growth in this segment and, if anything, the demand for EVs is now even stronger as prices at the pumps rise on the back of the Ukraine crisis.

Ian Plummer, commercial director, Auto Trader

Industry struggles at pivotal point

Even in its biggest month of the year for registrations, driven by the 22-numberplate change, the UK car industry continues to struggle to meet demand at a pivotal point in its evolution towards an electrified future.

While it is evident and welcome that demand for low and zero emissions vehicles is growing at a fast pace, it is also clear that the uptake could be far greater if supply issues caused by the semi-conductor computer chip shortage and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine weren’t having such a devastating impact on sales figures. Recent hikes in energy prices and general costs of living are also posing a challenge.

Jim Holder, editorial director, What Car?

Coming months will be telling

It was widely anticipated that the automotive sector would take most of 2022 to sufficiently increase component capacity and put an end to the supply shortages that have limited car production during the pandemic. But the implications of war in Ukraine and heightened restrictions in China add further complexity and exacerbate this challenge.

Whilst supply shortages persist, production volumes will remain lower than pre-pandemic, and car makers will continue to focus on higher margin models, as well as the electric vehicles market.

Up until now, this has kept forecourt sales relatively healthy, and also driven up prices of used cars. But the rising cost of living poses significant questions about whether consumers will delay, or even curtail, larger investments, such as on a car. The coming months will tell.

Richard Peberdy, UK head of automotive, KPMG

Still deals to be had

These are challenging times for dealers and thousands of would-be new car buyers have switched their focus to the second-hand market instead. The availability of used vehicles is better, and on the AA Cars website we’ve seen a surge of interest from buyers shopping for a used vehicle that’s available to drive away today.

While the strength of demand has pushed up the average prices of many used cars over the past year, there are still some competitive deals to be had.

James Fairclough, CEO, AA Cars

Disappointing fall

New car sales are still firmly stuck in the slow lane and struggling to gain any momentum, with vehicle availability continuing to be hampered by supply chain issues and the ongoing microchip shortage.

Considering that car showrooms remained shut in March 2021 due to lockdown restrictions, and last month should have seen a boost from the release of the new ’22 reg plate, a 14 per cent drop in sales in March 2022 is disappointing.

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With little evidence to suggest that supply chain and microchip challenges will ease any time soon, buyers are likely to face lengthy delivery times for new car purchases for the foreseeable future.

And the used car market will continue to benefit from disenchanted buyers who aren’t willing to wait six months, or longer, for their new motors to be delivered.

Alex Buttle, co-founder,

James Batchelor's avatar

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. In October 2021 he became Car Dealer's associate editor.

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