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New car sales show improvement in March

Better-than-expected results for March provide optimism as showrooms set to re-open next week

New car registrations were better than expected in March, as dealerships prepare to reopen their showrooms in England next week.

According to data published today by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), nearly 284,000 new cars were registered in March, which is 11% better than the same month last year. Fleet registrations were responsible for the lion’s share of this improvement, up 29% on last March, while private new car sales were down 4%.

However, traditional year-on-year analysis for registrations is now essentially pointless, a situation that won’t improve anytime soon as we mark a full year since the first Covid-19 lockdown started and 2020 new car sales degenerated into a complete mess. Showrooms in England closed in late March 2020 and the rest is history…

If we look back at the month of March in previous years, 2021’s performance is still well off every year from the previous decade, where new car registrations were usually north of 400,000 and as high as 550,000. While not all of this loss is necessarily purely down to Covid, it does show the scale of how far new car sales have fallen.

The most notable point from the March 2021 data was the strong performance of the fleet sector. There are probably a few factors contributing to this: preparations for a hopeful resumption of normal business activities in coming weeks; an degree of catching up, since fleet sector car buying dropped more than the private sector for most of the last year; and Brexit finally now put behind us.

Fleet market finally abandoning diesel

The other interesting point about such a fleet-heavy month of registrations is that it didn’t help boost sales of new diesel cars. Traditionally, fleet buyers have bought more diesel cars than private buyers but it seems that increasing numbers of fleets are shifting to plug-in vehicles, with continued strong growth for electric and – particularly – plug-in hybrid vehicles.

A close look at the data table below shows that almost half of diesel car sales, and almost a quarter of petrol car sales, are now mild hybrid versions. This means that they have a small electric motor that can boost the combustion engine but can’t drive the car on electric power alone. Within the next year or so, almost all petrol and diesel cars will be so equipped to hit increasingly tough emissions targets.

Good month, bad month

Even with an overall market up by more than 11%, some brands still did a lot better than others.

It was a good month for Abarth, Alpine, Citroën, Hyundai, Jeep, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, MG, Peugeot, Smart, Subaru, Vauxhall and Volvo, who all outperformed the market by at least 10%.

On the flip side, it wasn’t as exciting for Alfa Romeo, Dacia, Fiat, Honda, Jaguar, Kia, Lexus, Mazda, Mini, Mitsubishi, Porsche, SEAT, Skoda, SsangYong and Suzuki, who all recorded new registrations that were at least 10% worse than the market average.

Corsa back on top

The tussle for top spot in the best-sellers list continues to be closely fought between the Vauxhall Corsa and Ford Fiesta as the first quarter of 2021 comes to a close. The Corsa was back on top in March, outselling the Fiesta by about 500 units, which helped to extend its narrow lead in year-to-date sales.

The BMW 3 Series popped up in the top ten for the first time in a long time, while the Tesla Model 3 and Toyota Yaris also reappeared. The biggest surprise was the absence of the Ford Focus, which leaves it out of the top ten in year-to-date sales for the first time in about a hundred years.

We’ll have our usual monthly analysis of the top ten in coming days.

Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
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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