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UK new-car market continues healthy recovery as mainland Europe struggles


UK new car registrations saw a 30-fold increase in April as 141,583 new cars hit the road, according to new figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT).

However, this is compared with April 2020, when registrations had collapsed under the weight of the first national lockdown. Therefore, a more realistic comparison would be April 2019, prior to the pandemic. In this case, the UK saw a 12.1% decline in new car registrations in April.

This decline is actually an improvement on previous months, for example, when compared with figures from 2019:

  • New car registrations in January 2021 dropped by 43.9%;
  • In February, registrations dropped by 37.4%;
  • Registrations in March 2021 dropped by 38%.

Therefore, to only have a decline of 12.1% in April shows a clear improvement in new car registrations at the start of Q2 2021.

Another interesting point is that in 2020, when the pandemic took a hold on all industries, a mere 4,321 new cars were registered in the UK.

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Mike Hawes (pictured above), chief executive of the SMMT, 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.”

Retail demand is back

Retail demand is one possible explanation for these improved figures, decreasing slightly from 67,807 private registrations in April 2019 to 61,935 in April this year, marking a decline of 8.6%.

This boost in retail demand was accompanied, and perhaps encouraged, by the reopening of showrooms from 12 April, with click-and-collect and home-delivery services aiding registrations.

Hawes said: “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.”

Overall, registrations so far this year totalled 567,108, down 32.5% on the average recorded over the past decade.

The SMMT also stated that “in light of the more upbeat economic outlook on the back of vaccine rollout and easing of the lockdown restrictions in line with government roadmap, the SMMT has revised its forecasts upwards from 1.83 million to around 1.86 million new cars to be registered by the end of the year, a 13.9% increase on 2020.

“However, this would still be some 20.2% down on the average of 2.33 million registrations a year recorded between 2010 and 2019. Demand is likely to be driven by a broad range of new models and powertrains, with confidence bolstered by the gradual reopening of the country.”

How does this compare with the EU big four?

The release of the SMMT’s figures accompany similar announcements from automotive trade bodies in the EU big four – France, Germany, Italy and Spain. This helps to draw a comparison between how the UK is faring compared with the big four.

According to the CCFA, the French auto industry association, 140,426 new cars were registered in France in April 2021. This marks a decline of more than a quarter from April 2019. Similarly, the average number of registrations for April between 2010 and 2019 is 175,000, showing that April 2021 is far below normal.

According to Autovista Group, an automotive insight provider, the seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of the French market fell to 1.63 million units in April. This marks the lowest level since November, when dealers were closed for most of the month.

Autovista also stated that it forecasts the new car market will grow by 8% in 2021, following the 25% contraction in 2020, to close to 1.8 million units. However, this is still 19.5% lower than in 2019.

Germany down by 26%

New-car registrations in Germany amounted to 229,650 units in April, equating to a decline of 26.1% compared to the same month in 2019, according to the latest figures released by the Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (KBA).

With dealerships in Germany open since 8 March, the new-car market appears to be on the slow road to recovery. However, the government monitors the number of infections per 100,000 people and will place restrictions should this become too high. This means that the number of dealers open to the public is limited by this condition. As such, the level of registrations retreated in April.

Autovista Group also revealed that the SAAR plummeted to 2.5 million units in April – the lowest level since June 2020 and the second-lowest market volume for April in reunified Germany. Autovista also reduced its forecast for 2021 to 3.06 million new-car registrations, 15% lower than 2019.

Italy to grow 17% YoY

The Italian new car market contracted by 17.1% in April, compared to the same month in 2019, according to the industry association ANFIA.

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This led Paolo Scudieri (pictured above), president of ANFIA, to say that “the gradual restart of the market, with incentives for cars in the 61-135g/km range of CO2 emissions, is backing down.

“The priority at the moment is, therefore, the refinancing of the support measures for car demand, but also for light-commercial vehicles.” These incentives are expected to be in place until at least the end of June.

Autovista forecasts the market will grow 17% year on year in 2021, to over 1.6 million units, marking a 15.7% decrease on the 2019.

Spain continues downward spiral

In Spain, 58,279 new cars were registered in April, according to ANFAC, the Spanish vehicle manufacturers’ association.

Unfortunately, this marks the continuation of the downward trend caused by the pandemic. March saw a decrease of 30% from 2019, and yet April saw a greater decline of 34.2%. In the first four months of 2021, 39.3% fewer cars were registered than in the same period in 2019.

Fewer than 265,000 new cars were registered between January and April 2021, compared to over 300,000 units in the May-August and September-December periods in 2020.

According to Autovista Group, “demand will recover from the 32% loss in 2020, albeit only by 6% to about 900,000 units in 2021. Moreover, at this level, the Spanish market will be 28.3% smaller this year than in 2019.”