business

UK Auto Sales Hit Lowest Since 1992 Despite Electric Cars Posting ‘Best-Ever Year'

William Barton | iStock Editorial | Getty Images
  • New car registrations amounted to 1,631,064 last year, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
  • This represents a slump of almost 30%, with the coronavirus pandemic and the enforced shuttering of showrooms hitting demand.

New car sales in the U.K. slumped by almost 30% in 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic and the enforced shuttering of showrooms hitting demand.

Figures released on Wednesday by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show new car registrations amounted to 1,631,064 last year, a drop of 680,076 compared to 2019 and the lowest number since 1992.

While the overall market suffered, electric cars still managed to enjoy what the SMMT described as their "best-ever year."

Road users' demand for battery electric vehicles rose by 185.9% in 2020, with 108,205 new registrations. Sales of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles hit 66,877, an increase of 91.2%.

The SMMT said that combined, battery and plug-in hybrid electric cars "accounted for more than one in 10 registrations — up from around one in 30 in 2019."

According to the industry group, British consumers can now choose from over 100 plug-in car models, with manufacturers due to "bring more than 35 to market in 2021 — more than the number of either petrol or diesel new models planned for the year."

Work still needs to be done for electric vehicles to catch up and compete with models based on the internal combustion engine, however. Despite sales of gas-powered cars dropping by 39% last year, they still enjoyed a market share of 55.4%, while the market share for diesel cars was 16%.

The best-selling car in 2020 was the Ford Fiesta but, in a small sign of how the market could eventually change in the years ahead, the Tesla Model 3 — an electric vehicle — was the most popular car for December.

The U.K. numbers come after data for car sales for Norway were released. On Tuesday, Reuters, citing the Norwegian Road Federation, reported that battery electric vehicles accounted for 54.3% of all new car sales in Norway last year. This, it said, was a global record.

With concerns about air pollution and its effects on health and the environment increasing, the modes of transport people use are beginning to change. In recent years, a range of governments around the world have established new goals for low and zero emission vehicles.

Toward the end of last year, the U.K. announced plans to stop selling new diesel and gasoline-powered cars and vans by 2030, while Norway wants all new light vans and passenger cars sold to be zero emission by the year 2025. Elsewhere, Denmark has proposed a phase-out of new diesel and petrol car sales in 2030.

One challenge when it comes to the uptake of electric vehicles relates to the charging infrastructure required to keep them on the road. Efforts are now underway to remedy this, with the U.K.'s first forecourt dedicated to charging electric vehicles opening last month. 

In a statement issued Wednesday, Mike Hawes, the SMMT's chief executive, said: "With manufacturers bringing record numbers of electrified vehicles to market over the coming months, we will work with government to encourage drivers to make the switch, while promoting investment in our globally-renowned manufacturing base — recharging the market, industry and economy."

Copyright CNBCs - CNBC
Contact Us