UK car sales rebound after ‘one of darkest years in automotive history’

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UK car sales rebounded in April compared with 2020 as England’s Covid lockdown ended and showrooms reopened but the number of new cars rolling out was still substantially lower than the pre-pandemic average.

About 141,600 vehicles were sold during the month, according to data released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

That total was 30 times higher than in April 2020, when the first national lockdown wiped out 97% of sales and reduced the motor trade to levels not seen since 1946, during rationing and the aftermath of the second world war.

While the comparison with the 2020 closure of every dealership in the country flatters 2021 figures, they remain 13% lower than the 2010-19 monthly average, the SMMT said. It expects 1.86m car sales in 2021, 14% higher than 2020 and slightly better than previous forecasts, thanks to the speed of the UK vaccine programme.

“After one of the darkest years in automotive history, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mike Hawes, the SMMT’s chief executive. “A full recovery for the sector is still some way off but with showrooms open and consumers able to test drive the latest, cleanest models, the industry can begin to rebuild.”

Overall, new car registrations for 2021 have reached 567,000. That is still down by almost a third compared with the pre-pandemic average for the first four months but there are hopes that the vaccine combined with savings built up by millions of stay-at-home workers during the coronavirus crisis could unleash some pent-up demand.

Car sales globally were hugely affected by the pandemic but 2020 is also likely to be remembered in the car industry as the year when electric vehicle sales started to make their mark as stricter EU carbon dioxide emissions regulations kicked in.

However, the share of electric cars dipped in April compared with the first three months of the year. Sales for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles overtook pure battery electric sales, a change that the SMMT said was down to cuts in government grants for electrics. Plug-in hybrids combine an externally rechargeable battery with an internal combustion engine.

Separate data from New AutoMotive, a thinktank on policies to promote electric vehicles, showed that Volkswagen was the biggest seller of pure electric cars during April. The German carmaker has invested billions of euros in launching new electric cars such as the ID3, although battery sales in the UK were still less than a tenth of overall sales.

South Korea’s Kia was the second largest seller of battery electric cars in April, while the US carmaker Tesla, which only makes electric cars, did not make the top 10 because of inconsistent import schedules.

Ben Nelmes, the head of policy at New AutoMotive, said there was a “race for EV market share” that would ultimately lead to more choice for consumers hoping to switch.

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