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Mid-year new car registrations indicate pan-European direction shift



New car platings are useful indicators of a market’s shape that can highlight where its strengths but also weaknesses lie and, as Iain Robertson suggests, while the pandemic has dented the figures, the previous flux is only leading to more confusion.

Unsurprisingly, as Europe barrels towards a future driven by electricity, it is interesting to note an illusion that the drop in diesel powered new vehicles is being replaced, in volume terms, by plug-in hybrids and battery-electric types. Yet, it is worth comprehending the logic, as several carmakers (and importers) simply ceased representing diesel as a fuel source in their vehicles, a factor that has been of annoyance to several transport sectors.

While the anti-diesel argument fostered by most governments can be described as short-sighted, not least after many years of pan-European gross profiteering on every litre sold, since the fuel took a stronger hold during the 1980s, with massive improvements in cleaning-up refuelling facilities, diesel cars actually became ‘cleaner’ and ‘greener’ than their petrol alternatives. The boost provided by turbocharging meant that the strong torque provided by most diesel engines was also supported by near 100bhp/per litre capacity power outputs, which ensured that most diesels could qualify as the performance variants in manufacturers’ model line-ups.

To suggest that BEVs can replace DERVs, an intriguing and unbalancing factor remains, which is sure to afflict vehicle choices at present. Most BEVs have poor towing capacities, an aspect more than catered for by diesel. When you contemplate the massive upwards shift in the sales of caravans, motorhomes and trailers over the past 12-18 months, to a number of ‘staycationing’ nations, the BEV sector is not exactly a winner.


As a result, while diesel volumes continue to slide, it is not the massive landslip that may have been anticipated. However, the taxi and private hire sectors, which used to be predominated by diesels, are now being made to embrace BEVs, otherwise their access to city centres would be sorely restricted. In fact, analysing the registration figures reveals that 32% of all registrations was diesel-fuelled in 2019, a figure that dropped to 30% last year, as the pandemic took hold, but has slumped to just 22% in July 2021, which appears less than encouraging. However, a consortium of carmakers unconvinced by the viability of a strictly electric car market has been working feverishly on a non-fossil, thus renewable, chemical diesel alternative. While the price per litre is excessively steep at present, it hopes to cut prices to a figure closer to diesel today in the near future. Proving its ‘cleanliness’ will be another issue altogether but diesel engine production will not have to cease.

On the other hand, petrol power has reduced only slightly in the July-to-July reconciliation. It held around 63.4% of the pan-European total in 2018-2019, dropping to 59.8% last July but 59% this summer, bearing in mind that all registration figures (other than BEVs) have slipped downwards at a not dissimilar rate to journey distances. However, BEVs, while increasing in number by around 49,000 units between July 2019 and July 2020, the increase this year of 125,000 units is still not supplanting the diesel drop.

Naturally, there are sound reasons for it. The first involves unit pricing, which remains far too high to encourage a greater uptake rate. The second lies in another round of ‘downsizing’. If you need proof of the former, be aware that the pan-European conventional best-seller in July has been the Dacia Sandero, Renault’s Romanian produced cheapie, with the VW Golf nipping at its heels, although it suffered an unfortunate 37% volume drop. Third in the table is the Toyota Yaris, with Polo not far behind. In fact, the first SUV/crossover model to figure is the VW T-Roc in fifth spot, followed closely by the Hyundai Tucson and VW T-Cross.

It does appear that Europe’s love affair with the crossover sector has reached a plateau and, judging by the fields of unsold and high-end cars in that sector, where price-slashing deals can be done, especially on older stock, it is unsurprising that several carmakers are looking carefully at their laurels. However, against 20,446 Sanderos finding owners in July 2021, Europe’s best-selling PHEV was the Ford Kuga (4,247 units, a third down on where it had been).


At the top of the BEVs chart was the VW ID.3, new to market and snaffling-up 5,433 customers in July 2021. Yet, these are not all consumer registrations, as dealers need demonstrators, which constitute almost half of the platings. Running second to it is the Renault Zoe electric stalwart, which is now one of the elder statesman (updated fortunately) of the BEV set, although the Kia Niro is chomping at its rear bumper. They are followed by four newcomers, in order of popularity, Skoda Enyaq, Fiat 500, VW ID.4 and Ford Mustang Mach-e, their uptake rates governed as much by promotional allure as dealer self-registrations.

Yet, it is intriguing to note that former top-sellers, such as the Toyota Corolla, Vauxhall/Opel Corsa, Skoda Octavia, Peugeot 208, Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Renault Clio have all posted registration shortfalls of between 17% and 52%, which suggests that not all is well and seeking sales patterns is still a feckless task. While SUV/crossovers still control over 46% of the new car scene, city cars (smart), sub-compacts (Fiesta) and compacts (Astra) still hold 6.1%, 17.1% and 16.2% respectively of the pan-European market.

For many years, the new car market has been an indicator of relative success both at home and abroad. The past three to five years has shown that the excesses prior to the world market crash in 2008 have all but ceased. Used car values are at frightening levels, with late models commanding extraordinarily high retail prices, while discounting is rife across all brands, across Europe.

Conclusion: The new car scene is no longer the reliable indicator of national market success. Its future looks insecure, with a massive sea change to electricity taking centre-stage. Will it ever return? It might do, if it is given space in which to settle down.