Car makers struggle to predict diesel future

Differing views over how to arrest sliding sales

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Sliding sales of diesel-engined cars, reshaping the UK market, have caught the automotive industry by surprise.

The Car Expert has heard totally different opinions the future of diesel from two different brands within 24 hours, as manufacturers struggle to predict future trends and production quotas between petrol and diesel cars.

While UK car registrations slumped by 9% in September – normally one of the two biggest months of the year for the market due to the change in registration plates – diesel registrations plummeted almost 22%.

Year-to-date diesel demand has slid 14% to under 43% of the market, and the rate appears to be accelerating. A study commissioned by aftersales specialist Kwik-Fit suggested only one in six people planning to buy a new car in the next two years would consider a diesel.

Confusion driving customers away from diesel

Most in the industry agree that a wave of negative and often ill-informed publicity over the emissions of diesel, including the threats of bans, have hit the market – many of the ‘scare stories’ failing to discriminate between older, dirtier diesel engines and the newest-technology, more emissions-friendly units.

“The confusion surrounding air quality plans has not helped, but consumers should be reassured that all the new diesel and petrol models on the market will not face any bans or additional charges,”  said Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT), following the release of the latest registration figures.

However, only days after Hawes’ statement, Oxford City Council unveiled plans to start banning all petrol and diesel cars from Oxford city centre as early as 2020.

Nowhere has the effect been seen more than in the SUV sector, the fastest-growing part of the UK market. More and more buyers are turning to petrol in a sector formerly dominated by diesel.

“We expect our petrol/diesel split on the Stonic to be 65-35%,” Kia product specialist Monica Forgo told The Car Expert at the launch of the brand’s new Kia Stonic small SUV this week. “But it could be 70-30, and within year it might even be 80-20 – the market has changed so much and we are monitoring it very closely.”

One day later, however, Citroën’s Dan Bullimore offered a very different view at the launch of the brand’s new C3 Aircross – a direct rival to the Stonic. “We expect the initial split to be 75-25 in favour of petrol, but to then revert to 60-40,” he said.

“We have done a lot of work with our dealers to help them to explain to customers the advantages of our modern diesel engines and the differences between them and older units – particularly with regard to NOx emissions,” Bullimore added.

All of which suggests that the only predictable aspect of the diesel market over the coming months is that it will be unpredictable…

Citroën expects diesel sales to return to its new C3 Aircross model.

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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.

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  1. According to ADAC ecotests most new diesels still emit excessive NOx in normal driving. It is not enough for diesel-makers to say their cars are clean, they must prove it with independent, realistic testing.

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