• Weakest February market since 1959
  • Market outlook downgraded to 1.83 million registrations in 2021 as showroom closures continue to stall order books

The UK’s new car market was down by 35.5% year-on-year in February as dealers’ showrooms remained shut under government lockdown orders.

February is usually a weak month in terms of the calendar year and this year’s result was the lowest since 1959, with just 51,312 new cars registered.

With showrooms closed nationwide since 5 January – and in many parts of the country, since December – both private and fleet sector demand fell, by 37.3% and 33.5% respectively. All vehicle segments saw declines save for luxury saloons, which recorded a 3.8% increase against a statistically very small proportion of the market.

Plug-in vehicles continued to enjoy growth, with BEVs and PHEVs taking a combined 13.0% market share for the month, up from just 5.7% in February 2020. BEV uptake increased by 40.2% to 3,516, and PHEVs by 52.1% to 3,131 as the industry continues to promote a broad range of lower-emission technologies for consumers.

However, the SMMT said that increasing uptake of these new technologies to the levels required by 2030 remains a mammoth task. The trade body also said yesterday’s Budget (UK gov economic/fiscal policy statements) was a ‘missed opportunity given the lack of measures to support the market overall and notably the transition away from pure petrol and diesel cars and vans’.

More positively, the SMMT acknowledged that the Chancellor answered the industry’s call for a furlough extension, which it said was ‘vital given the massive fall in vehicle demand’.

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With the UK facing ongoing restrictions until at least 12 April, the automotive industry expects a challenging March, traditionally the sector’s most important month which would typically account for one in five annual registrations.

The SMMT also said that while online orders and click and collect can provide a lifeline, showroom closures mean dealerships will find it significantly more challenging to fill order banks following £23 billion worth of fewer registrations since March 2020. As a result, SMMT has revised its market outlook to 1.83 million new car registrations in 2021, down from the 1.89 million predicted in January. Most of these losses are expected to occur in March.

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said: “February is traditionally a small month for car registrations and with showrooms closed for the duration, the decline is deeply disappointing but expected. More concerning, however, is that these closures have stifled dealers’ preparations for March with the expectation that this will now be a third successive dismal ‘new plate month’. Although we have a pathway out of restrictions with rapid vaccine rollout, and proven experience in operating click and collect, it is essential that showrooms reopen as soon as possible so the industry can start to build back better, and recover the £23 billion loss from the past year.”