British car sales slumped to a six-year low in 2019, as widespread economic uncertainty put the brakes on an industry whose only glimmer of hope came in the form of record electric vehicle sales.
New car registrations fell two per cent to 2.31m last year, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), amid a prolonged Brexit process and tough new restrictions on diesel vehicles.
It caps the industry’s worst year since 2013 and the third drop in a row since 2016, when sales hit a record high of 2.69m.
SMMT chief Mike Hawes said: “A third year of decline for the UK new car market is a significant concern for industry and the wider economy.
“Political and economic uncertainty, and confusing messages on clean air zones have taken their toll on buyer confidence.”
Hawes said the political and economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit remains a “clear and present danger”.
Charles Butler, motoring expert at Carwow, said: “The entire sector is having to quickly adapt to new emissions legislation, and with the emphasis continually growing on action against climate change, manufacturers will have to make leaps and bounds in electric and hybrid sales to make the tech both reliable and affordable to persuade motorists to make the move.”
Record electric car sales
But the organisation also pointed to new emissions legislation putting buyers off diesel cars and pushing them towards electric and hybrid vehicles – which enjoyed their biggest-selling year ever.
Battery electric vehicles experienced the biggest percentage growth, rising 144 per cent to 37,850 units and overtaking plug-in hybrids for the first time.
Combined, alternatively fuelled vehicle sales – which include hybrids and battery electric cars – surged to take a record 7.4 per cent market share.
Hybrid electric vehicles continued to dominate the sector, with registrations increasing 17.1 per cent to 97,850 units.
Meanwhile, diesel car demand plunged 22 per cent compared to 2018.
The industry body said confusion around future air quality rules and possible restrictions on diesel vehicles entering city centres had left buyers choosing to hold onto their current cars.
Electric ‘set to spark’ in 2020
Seán Kemple, director of sales at Close Brothers Motor Finance, said: “2020 holds the key to a new era of car buying.
“Electric is set to spark, and we can expect to see legislative changes that make alternative fuelled vehicles (AFV) more attractive to potential buyers.
“Tax benefits of having an AFV are expanding, and fresh investment pledges to develop charging-point networks will boost demand.
“Big car brands like BMW are focused on having a clear hybrid range and pure electric strategy and Volkswagen are investing in AFVs.
“One in ten cars were battery, plug-in or hybrid electric in 2019, as new models hit the showrooms in accelerating numbers. And as diesel continues to be demonised, this share is only set to multiply.”
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