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‘Anti-diesel rhetoric’ fuels new car sales slump

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Sales of new cars in the UK slumped by close to 6% in 2017, with industry bosses putting the blame firmly on adverse publicity levelled at diesel engines.

Figures issued by the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) revealed a 14.4% decline in new car registrations in December, the ninth consecutive month that the market has fallen. A total of 152,473 cars were registered during the month, bringing the 2017 total to 2,540,617.

The annual figure was 5.7% down on 2016’s total – in January the SMMT had predicted that after five years of growth 2017 would be more challenging but following a record month for sales in March, SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes stated that he expected the market to slow over the rest of 2017, “but not significantly.” The market began falling in April and has not stopped since.

Following the latest figures the SMMT tried to play up the positives, Hawes stating that while the decline is concerning demand remains at historically high levels. “More than 2.5 million people drove away in a new car last year, benefitting from the latest, safest, cleanest and most fuel efficient technology,” he said.

Hawes added that the reasons for the slump include falling business and consumer confidence, and “confusing anti-diesel messages (that) have caused many to hesitate before buying a new low-emission diesel car.” While registrations of petrol-fuelled cars rose by a modest 2.7%, diesels slid by 17.1% – at the end of 2016 diesel engines held almost half of the market, now it is down to 42% and still sliding.

2017 Car Sales The Car ExpertThe SMMT blames anti-diesel rhetoric and the potential for tax hikes causing buyers to hesitate over buying. “However, these cars remain the right choice for many motorists – especially those who travel longer distances – with lower CO2, better fuel economy and, with these newer vehicles, dramatically reduced air quality emissions,” the industry body says, quoting its own figures suggesting that on average buyers of diesels save £132 a year on their costs.

Hawes is adding to growing calls for an industry-wide Government scrappage scheme to replace older, more polluting diesel cars. “Keeping older vehicles on the road will not only mean higher running costs but will hold back progress towards our environmental goals,” he said.

“Consumers should be encouraged to buy the right car for their lifestyle and driving needs irrespective of fuel type – whether that be petrol, electric, hybrid or diesel as it could save them money.”

One upside to the latest figures is a surge in sales of ‘alternatively-fuelled’ vehicles, which includes electric and hybrid cars. These rose by 34.8%, 119,821 registered over the year. Such vehicles now enjoy their highest ever share of the market though it is still just 4.7%.

Hawes summed up 2017 as “undoubtedly a very volatile year” and added that lacklustre economic growth means that the industry expects a further weakening in the market for 2018. However he added that this could be good news for car buyers; “The upside for consumers is some very, very competitive deals.”

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.