New car sales: UK records worst October in 30 years

Cars at the Vauxhall plant in Cheshire

Wondering how the car industry is coping? Unfortunately, new figures show the UK endured its worst October performance since 1991. That said, the market for plug-in vehicles continues to grow…

Sales drop to record-breaking lows

Just 106,265 new cars were registered in the UK last month, representing a 24.6% drop compared to October 2020, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said. This made it the fourth consecutive month showing year-on-year decline. 

The SMMT lowered its forecast for the number of new cars that will be registered in the UK this year by 8.8%, taking into consideration supply chain issues and the deteriorating economic outlook.

This prediction means 2021 would finish 1.9% up on last year, but more than a quarter down on the pre-pandemic total of 2.3 million in 2019.

However, demand for plug-in vehicles continues to “buck the trend”. Registrations of battery electric vehicles increased by 73.1% in October, while demand for plug-in hybrids increased by 7.5%. Plug-in vehicles now make up 16.6% of new car registrations this year.

SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said: “The current performance reflects the challenging supply constraints, with the industry battling against semiconductor shortages and increasingly strong economic headwinds as inflation rises, taxes increase and consumer confidence has weakened.

“Electrified vehicles (EVs), however, continue to buck the trend, with almost one in six new cars registered this year capable of zero-emission motoring, growth that is fundamental to the UK’s ability to hit its net-zero targets.”

Mr Hawes explained that with next year looking brighter and even more models expected, the continuation of this transition will depend on the preservation of incentives that overcome the affordability barrier, and the ability of the public and private sectors to increase public on-street charging to allay EV driver concerns.

The UK has pledged to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030; ensure all new cars and vans are zero emissions at the tailpipe by 2035, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

Industry reaction

Jim Holder, editorial director of magazine and website What Car?, said the most positive message from the October figures is the strong battery electric vehicle performance.

He added: “This has been the fastest-growing new car segment in the UK for some time now, and will only continue to grow as manufacturers continue to expand their electric line-ups and offer customers a wider array of exciting new vehicles.”

Alex Buttle, co-founder of used car marketplace Motorway.co.uk, said market conditions mean car buyers face “difficult purchasing decisions”.

He continued: “Ongoing supply chain issues and ever-growing manufacturer waiting lists mean buyers could be waiting six to 12 months for delivery of their new car.

“This has driven people to turn to the used car market instead which continues to be extremely buoyant at all ends of the buying spectrum.

“But sky-high demand has seen record-breaking used car prices being achieved in recent months, with 30% premiums on the sale of many makes and models compared to a year ago.”

For more context, and to see how these figures echo a recent trend in car sales, see our last report on EV uptake on the rise while UK car production plummets.

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