New car sales fall more than 40% as coronavirus takes hold

Private new car registrations tumbled in March, with numbers down by 40% as dealerships closed around the country in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

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As expected, new car registrations have taken a tumble in March, with private new car sales down by 40% and fleet registrations down by 47% as dealerships closed around the country in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Just under 255,000 new cars were registered in March according to numbers published this morning by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), down from 458,000 in the same month last year. This represents a steeper fall than took place in the financial crisis more than a decade ago (when numbers fell 30% in March 2009), and was certainly one of the fastest sales collapses in memory. Sales come to almost a complete halt in the second half of the month, as dealerships closed their doors and buyers were stuck at home.

The sales numbers in the UK are similar to those of Germany, which recorded a 38% fall. Across Europe, Italy suffered the hardest as a result of being the first European country to go into lockdown, with registrations down by 85%. France was down by 72% and Spain by 69%, with both countries closing for business ahead of the UK.

Given that March is usually the biggest month of the year for new car sales in the UK, this is a devastating blow for the car industry, which was already struggling to accept slowing new car sales over the last few years.

March 2020 new car sales

Overall economic position clouds any meaningful analysis

Beyond the obvious headline figures, there’s not a huge amount that can really be drawn from the March figures. Diesel sales fell faster than other types of power output, which is not surprising given than fleet and business registrations fell further than private consumer sales – as we predicted on Saturday ahead of today’s numbers being published.

Similarly, the market share of electric cars, plug-in hybrids and regular hybrids was higher than in recent months. This is at least partly because consumers have been faster adopters of this technology than fleets.

In reality, however, global supply situations and logistics for individual manufacturers will have played a big part in the results for March. Some dealer groups will also have managed to get more cars out the door before having to suspend operations.

March 2020 new car sales by fuel type

With dealerships remaining closed for the foreseeable future, April is likely to be almost a complete write-off. Some brands are working to maintain new vehicle supply for key workers and critical industries, but this will obviously only represent a fraction of normal business activity.

Bad month, worse month

There’s not a lot of point with our usual ‘good month, bad month’ summary for March, as factories and then dealers closing their doors mean that no-one in the industry is currently celebrating their results for the last month.

Some brands fell much further than the overall market while others performed better, but this will be dependent on the above factors as well as any decisions by manfuacturers and dealerships to pre-register unsold cars. However, it’s entirely possible that pre-registration activity may be less than we would normally see when sales take a tumble, as factory shutdowns will mean fewer cars arriving as soon as transportation operations resume in coming months, which will mean reduced pressure of unsold stock mounting up.

Golf to the fore

Of the quarter of a million new cars that did go out the door in March, the Volkswagen Golf proved most popular, ahead of the Ford Fiesta and Mini hatch. In year-to-date sales, the Golf moves up into second place, leapfrogging the Ford Focus and closing in on the best-selling Fiesta.

March 2020 best-selling cars

The bottom end of the top ten was a bit more interesting, with the Tesla Model 3 (listed as ‘Other’ because Tesla does not disclose its numbers to the SMMT) and Range Rover Evoque both making an appearance in a consumer-oriented month.

As usual, we’ll cover the top ten results in more detail later this week.

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Stuart Masson
Stuart Masson
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.

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