Record year for zero emission cars fails to reboot UK market

MINI Plant Oxford
Mini Plant Oxford

The UK new car market declined in 2019, with annual registrations falling for the third consecutive year,2 according to figures released today by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). 2,311,140 units were registered last year, representing a 2.4 per cent decline as the turbulent market reacted to weak business and consumer confidence, general political and economic instability and confusion over clean air zones.

The annual decline was driven primarily by falling private demand, with registrations from consumers down 3.2 per cent, while the small volume business market also fell, down 34.4 per cent. Fleet registrations remained broadly stable, up 0.8 per cent.

Bucking the overall trend, combined alternatively fuelled vehicle (AFV) registrations surged in 2019 to take a record 7.4 per cent market share. Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) continued to dominate this sector, with registrations increasing 17.1 per cent to 97,850 units. Battery electric vehicle (BEV) registrations experienced the biggest percentage growth, rising 144 per cent to 37,850 units and overtaking plug-in hybrids for the first time.

Demand fell across nearly all vehicle segments, with only the dual purpose and specialist sports categories experiencing growth, up 12.0 per cent and 19.2 per cent respectively. Despite registrations of superminis and lower medium cars falling (by 6.0% and 4.0% respectively), these smaller vehicles remain the most popular – with a combined 57.1 per cent market share.

There was modest growth in demand for petrol cars, up 2.2 per cent. However, this was not enough to offset the significant 21.8 per cent decline in diesel registrations. December marked the 33rd month of diesel decline, as continued anti-diesel rhetoric and confusion over clean air zones hit demand, said the SMMT. This has resulted in drivers keeping their older, more polluting vehicles on the road for longer, holding back progress towards environmental goals.

While The SMMT said that the huge increase in BEV demand is welcome, their 1.6 per cent market share is still tiny and underlines the progress needed to reach the 50-70 per cent share the government envisages in the next 10 years.

This ambition has not been helped by the significant decline of zero emission-capable plug-in hybrids, down 17.8 per cent – further evidence of the consequences of prematurely removing upfront purchase incentives before the market is ready, the SMMT statement added.