Putting the figures into perspective, Iain Robertson considers that the pandemic was responsible for slashing over 680,000 new car registrations from 2019’s end-of-year results, which places some makes and models in a most parlous position.
In some respects, the Chinese disease has been a leveller, most notably around the UK new car business. While an exceedingly small car-hating percentage in our country may rejoice at such results, the almost 30% reduction in new car platings is a trend that is most unwelcome for some brands. In fact, Subaru, which is one of the few concessionaire, as opposed to manufacturer, represented brands in the UK, by Birmingham-based International Motors Group (IMG), reported that 951 examples in total was just one third of its 2019 sales of 2,997 units. Even upmarket Bentley managed a total of 1,337 registrations, although its numbers were down by just over 16%.
With a profit margin around 22%, from which dealers and the importer need to make their cuts, just over £3.0m was returned to IMG, an insufficient sum, even for a costs-conscious operator, leaving its property and other sub-divisions to maintain Group buoyancy. It has not been an easy ride for PSA Group either, which is responsible for Peugeot, Citroen, DS and Vauxhall. Despite its much-vaunted strategic partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automotive (which includes Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Dodge, Jeep, Ferrari and Maserati in its portfolio), Citroen alone endured an almost 45% slump in registrations.
Yet, it was in good company, with Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Suzuki and Mazda all experiencing similar reductions in volume. It is not that these firms, with the exception perhaps of Mitsubishi and its aged model line-up, replacement of which is compounded by the brand withdrawing from the UK and the closing of its Cirencester headquarters, are making undesirable products. Hyundai and sister ship Kia have been among the leading lights in the electrified field and Mazda’s first-rate model stability has been shaken to the core. Of course, Suzuki entered 2020 with a depleted range, which only served to add to its woes.
However, the ubiquitous Ford Fiesta continued to top the annual sales charts, despite a 35% loss of its previous year’s volume. The most ironic ‘best-seller’ across the year was EV-maker Tesla, which recorded an amazing 22,344 registrations for its more affordable (£46k) Model 3 and became the nation’s best-seller in the month of December, its result helped by at least 3,500 registrations of other Tesla models, to give it an astonishing 78.24% increase over 2019. As a result, the US brand is among a very few that were able to crow about last year. It was joined in the ‘winners’ circle’ by Chinese MG, which, at 18,415 new registrations was 40.84% up on the previous year, aided undoubtedly by its ‘affordable’ EVs.
Over the course of the year, Ford shifted almost 50,000 Fiestas, with the Vauxhall Corsa, emboldened by a new range, running it a close second overall. Despite an all-new Golf Mark 8 line-up, Volkswagen should be contented with their third place and 43,109 units in the 2020 Top Ten. However, Ford’s No.1 status in the UK, despite the fact that it no longer produces cars here at all, was helped by 39,372 Focus platings (4th), which is sure to be highly unsettling for the marque, which usually manages to slip into third spot.
Fifth place went to Mercedes-Benz, which was an outstanding result. Its A-Class model hitting an all-time peak of 37,608 units, to underscore its market push in the junior executive sector. However, it is most unusual that neither the BMW 1-Series, nor Audi A3, its closest rivals in more normal circumstances, were not hovering around similar volume levels. It is clear that Merc got its offering right, with some attractive finance deals, albeit underwritten heavily by the firm.
Next in line was the Nissan Qashqai (33,972 units), once again highlighting its UK’s best-selling SUV status. Interestingly, Nissan has announced recently that it is more than satisfied with the ‘Brexit’ deal, which makes me wonder about what was agreed between the disgraced former CEO of the carmaker (Carlos Ghosn) and former PM Theresa May around four-and-a-half years ago. Regardless, its reinforced position in the vanguard of UK manufacturing will ensure that major job losses do not rack the population in Sunderland.
Quite how comic-book Mini managed to sneak into seventh place overall (31,233 units) did surprise me, the overwrought and overpriced ‘Maxi’-sized car managing to hold the excellent VW Polo (26,965) and the latest Ford Puma (26,294) at bay in eight and ninth slots. Ford’s push for Puma was gargantuan and you can be sure that a large number of pre-registrations were made at dealer level, along with some hugely attractive finance deals. Being a Ford dealer has seldom been an enviable role but the amount of pressure applied to make the ‘Blue Oval’ brand appear more substantial than it really is must have been untenable. The final place in the UK 2020 Top Ten went to Volvo, with its XC40 range (25,023 units).
To be fair to Volvo, its upmarket stance and truly superb model range have been consistent attractions over the past three years. The XC40 is such a complete and well-rounded car that, despite its Chinese ownership, which for me is the only unsettling element, I can fully comprehend why Volvo has been enjoying record worldwide sales.
Naturally, Volvo’s commitment to EVs is already growing apace but it is worth noting that the EV segment of the UK market grew by 108,205 battery-powered units in 2020, representing 6.6% of the UK total (an increase of 185.9% over 2019, which also pinpoints the dangers of looking at percentages alone). While accepting that 2030 and ‘E-Day’ are less than nine years away, this factor also reveals the disproportionate amount of attention given to EVs. It is also worth stating that plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) registered 66,877 units for a 4.1% market share. Yet, petrol power still dominates the market at 903,961 units (55.4%); over 1m, if you include mild-hybrids.
Conclusion: The UK new car scene is very stilted at present, understandably. Of equal interest is the stability of used car values, which have been hitting peaks considerably above valuations from previous years.