The UK new car market declined by 44.4% in March, according to figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
March is usually an important month for sales because of the plate change, but this year 203,370 fewer cars were registered than in March 2019, as showrooms closed in line with government advice to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The performance represented a steeper fall than during the 2009 financial crisis and the worst March since the late 1990s when the market changed to the bi-annual plate change system.
With lockdowns taking place in many European countries earlier than the UK, even more dramatic falls have been reported elsewhere, with Italy down 85%, France 72% and Spain down 69% in March.
In total, 254,684 new cars were registered in the month, with demand from private buyers and larger fleets falling by 40.4% and 47.4% respectively. Meanwhile the numbers of petrol and diesel cars joining the road were down 49.9% and 61.9%.
However, sales of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) rose almost three-fold in the month to 11,694 units, accounting for 4.6% of the market, while plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) grew 38.0%. Uptake of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), however, fell 7.1%.
SMMT has downgraded its interim market outlook for the year to 1.73 million registrations – a 23% decline on the previous outlook made in January and 25% lower than the 2.31 million units registered in 2019.
SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes commented: “With the country locked down in crisis mode for a large part of March, this decline will come as no surprise. Despite this being the lowest March since we moved to the bi-annual plate change system, it could have been worse had the significant advanced orders placed for the new 20 plate not been delivered in the early part of the month. We should not, however, draw long-term conclusions from these figures, other than this being a stark realisation of what happens when economies grind to a halt.
Sue Robinson, director of the National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA), which represents franchised car and commercial vehicle retailers in the UK: “The majority of franchised dealerships’ showrooms were closed for a week or longer in the second half of March which is when a large percentage of new cars are registered. As a result, the decline in new car sales does not come as a surprise.”
“We remain hopeful that the market will recover and franchised retailers will be able to continue their support for consumers on their vehicle purchasing and servicing needs.”