Some 156,737 new cars were registered in the UK in May – some 674% up on last year’s pandemic hit month.

This May’s total also benefited from the year’s first full month of showroom openings. However, the May total is down 14.7% on pre-pandemic May 2019, and 13.2% on the 10-year May average.

The SMMT said the May market was in line with the most recent industry outlook, published in April, which sees the sector anticipating around 1.86 million registrations by the end of the year – with 723,845 achieved so far.

Against a more positive economic backdrop – including OECD forecasting a 7.2% increase in UK GDP during 2021 – fleet registrations grew more than twice as fast as private purchases in May. Large fleets accounted for 50.7% of all new vehicles hitting the road, demonstrating improving business confidence compared to the same month last year, the SMMT said.

In terms of segments, SUVs saw a small decline in market share in the month, down to 26.7%, leapfrogged by lower medium cars which rose to 27.8%. Superminis remained Britain’s most popular car choice, with a 31.1% share.

Battery electric vehicle (BEV) market share declined from 12.0% a year ago to 8.4% in the past month, although the May 2020 performance was distorted by lockdowns when new cars could only be purchased through click and collect or delivery, giving rise to variable purchasing patterns.

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Looking more broadly across 2021, plug-in vehicles now comprise 13.8% of new car registrations, up from 7.2% a year earlier, with the most rapid growth seen in plug-in hybrid (PHEV) derivatives. Pure petrol and mild hybrid petrol cars so far account for 60.4% of registrations, while pure diesel and mild hybrid diesels took a 18.0% share year to date, compared to 64.6% and 22.4% last year.

Meanwhile, total registrations for 2021 sit at 296,448 fewer units, or 29.1% less, than the average recorded across January to May during the last decade, evidence of the scale of the recovery still needed given the impact of Covid on the market.

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said: “With dealerships back open and a brighter, sunnier, economic outlook, May’s registrations are as good as could reasonably be expected. Increased business confidence is driving the recovery, something that needs to be maintained and translated in private consumer demand as the economy emerges from pandemic support measures. Demand for electrified vehicles is helping encourage people into showrooms, but for these technologies to surpass their fossil-fuelled equivalents, a long term strategy for market transition and infrastructure investment is required.”

Richard Peberdy, automotive lead at KPMG UK, noted that the average age of the car parc is at a high, suggesting replacement demand is waiting to be tapped. He said: “As the economy begins to gradually move towards normality, motorists are taking their time to re-evaluate what vehicle they require to meet their changing commuting habits.

“Despite some caution, there are signs that sales are ripe for recovery in the longer term. The average age of vehicles on our roads is at a record high, suggesting many drivers will be looking to switch soon, and inventory shortages in the used-vehicle market should push motorists towards new models.

“The picture is particularly encouraging for future plug-in sales, with an increasing supply of attractive electric and hybrid options for consumers to choose from. And we’re likely to see a further boost to the strong momentum behind electric and hybrid vehicle sales in comparison to diesel, a trend that the SMMT data continues to track.

“While continuing supply chain challenges squeeze carmakers’ earnings, dealers will benefit as low stock creates an opportunity for them to build more margin.”

Volkswagen led the market in May helped by strong sales of its latest Golf model (the month’s top seller). Traditional UK market leader Ford was in third place, behind Audi – capping an exceptional month for VW Group in the UK.

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Sources: from industry sources.