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No March number plate boom to lift new car sales gloom

Registrations of new cars in the UK slid more than 14% in March – usually the busiest month due to the change in registration plates

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Registrations of new cars in the UK slid more than 14% in March – usually the busiest month of the year due to the change in registration plates.

Buyers remained keen to secure cars with new 22 plates, with manufacturers reporting strong order books. But they were unable to supply enough cars due to the continuing global shortage of semiconductor chips holding up production.

Over 240,000 new cars were registered during the month, the lowest March total since 1998 – before the market adopted two registration plate changes per year and a time when the single plate change month of August attracted the highest sales.

Since the two-plate system was adopted around a fifth of all car sales in a year have typically been made in March and the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT), which collates the car registration data, described this year’s figures as “massively disappointing for the sector and underscoring the long-term impact the pandemic is wreaking on the industry.”

Fleet registrations were down nearly 35% when compared to March last year. Meanwhile, registrations of private cars were up more than 8% over a year ago but these figures were skewed, with showrooms closed by lockdown restrictions in March 2021. Small business sales were also up as manufacturers prioritised selling what cars they had available to private customers and smaller businesses over large fleets.

A third of new cars sold are electrified

The one bright spot in the figures was the continuing rise in sales of battery-electric vehicles. In total 39,315 BEVs were registered, taking a highest-ever monthly market share of 16.1%. This all-electric sales charge was spearheaded by Tesla – with the Model Y SUV and Model 3 saloon topping the best-seller charts.

Plug-in hybrid registrations slipped 7.5% but those of hybrids grew 28.4%, meaning that more than a third of new cars sold are now electrified in some form.

While maintaining the biggest market share, sales of combustion-powered cars continued to tumble – particularly diesel registrations which fell over 55% in March compared to the year prior.

Good month, bad month

As has been the case for almost a year now, the market has been heavily disrupted by production delays and parts shortages. Each car manufacturer has been dealing with problems for some or all of its models, while some models have been less affected.

While the market as a whole contracted by more than 14%, some manufacturers recorded some impressive growth in March. Both MG Motors and Polestar more than doubled the number of cars they registered in March 2021, while the likes of Alfa Romeo, Alpine, Bentley, Cupra, Dacia, DS Automobiles, Fiat, Hyundai, Kia, Maserati, Porsche, Ssangyong and Suzuki also had a good month – outperforming the overall market by at least 10% in March.

Conversely, it wasn’t a healthy month of sales for the likes of Abarth, BMW, Citroën, Jaguar, Jeep, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Mini, Nissan, SEAT, Skoda, Subaru, Volkswagen or Volvo. All of these brands underachieved compared to the overall market by at least 10% (and in some cases, by a lot more than that).

Another impressive month for Tesla

The challenges in the market had an unprecedented effect on the ‘new car top ten’ which in March was topped by two models from EV standard-bearer Tesla – the Tesla Model Y recorded 6,464 registrations, just seven ahead of its Model 3 sister model, but more than 900 ahead of the Vauxhall Corsa in third.

The Corsa remains the top-selling car year-to-date, ahead of the Kia Sportage and Ford Puma, with the two Tesla contenders in sixth and seventh places.

The Ford Fiesta continues to be plagued by delays in tenth place, while the Volkswagen Golf and Polo are nowhere to be seen once again. Expect this rocky road for new car supply to continue until at least Summer and possibly throughout the rest of the year.

Additional reporting by Sean Rees

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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.