New car sales slip in March

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New car registrations fell by 3% in March, traditionally one of the biggest months of the year for new car sales, according to the latest results published this morning by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

Overall registrations were down by 16,000 compared to March last year. This was due to a fall of 10,000 units from business customers (an enormous drop, but a very small sector of the overall market) and 6,000 units from private buyers (a fall of just under 3%).

Fleet registrations, the largest market sector, were actually up by a few hundred units over the same month last year. However, there have been suggestions that fleet numbers may be exaggerated.

New car registrations, March 2019 | The Car Expert
New car registrations for March. How many of those fleet registrations are real customers?

Industry sources suspect there has been a lot of self-registration going on (pre-registered cars, dealer demonstrators, head office cars, and so on), so the real number of new fleet cars hitting the roads with actual customers may be significantly lower than the number suggest, with a lot of newly-registered cars sitting in paddocks around the country.

Indeed, one report suggests that several Volkswagen Group brands may have pre-registered thousands of cars in March. If we look at the reported registration numbers for Volkswagen, SEAT and Skoda, they are all up in a falling market. Audi also improved massively relative to its last six months, so this sounds quite reasonable.

Underwhelming month for diesels and hybrids

While it’s no surprise to see diesel sales continuing to slide, the stagnation in alternatively-fuelled vehicles (electric and hybrid cars, basically) remains a concern. While there was growth of more than 7% on the same month last year, an overall market share of 5.5% is well below the average figure for 2018, and has slid backwards from the last two months.

As we’ve discussed previously, the fall in plug-in hybrid models is largely a result of new WLTP emissions legislation that came into effect in September last year, resulting in many plug-in models being withdrawn from sale until they can meet the new rules. They are slowly returning to sale, but not yet in the numbers that were available before September.

Small cars dominate the market in March

As often happens in plate-change months (March and September), smaller and cheaper cars were popular in new car showrooms last month.

Top ten new car registrations, March 2019 | The Car Expert
The ten best-selling new cars in March. Good month for the Vauxhall Corsa, but two fewer Fords than last month.

The Ford Fiesta remains on top of the charts, after holding off a strong challenge from the Vauxhall Corsa. The Mini hatch, BMW 1 Series and Toyota Yaris also reappeared in the lower half of the top ten.

Despite the Fiesta’s ongoing dominance of the UK car market, it was a slightly disappointing month for Ford. The Focus slipped back from second to sixth, while the Kuga and EcoSport fell out of the top ten altogether. Overall, Ford registrations were down 19% compared to the same month last year.

Given the concerns around pre-registrations in March, it is difficult to tell how authentic the reported numbers from each brand really are. So take any of the below with a large pinch of salt…

Dacia had a fantastic month, with registrations up by 85%. MG continued its recent success, with an 83% increase, while Volvo, Citroën, Jaguar and Bentley also saw double-digit growth over the same month last year.

On the gloomier side of the road, it was a tough month for Infiniti, DS Automobiles, Maserati, McLaren, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, SsangYong, Abarth, Ford, Nissan, Honda, Subaru, Smart and Hyundai, who all saw double-digit falls compared to 12 months ago.

We now head into what is likely to be a slower second quarter, as our politicians do their best to avoid making any decisions on how to enact Brexit. Combined with what is likely to be a high number of pre-registered cars that will hit the market in June, it could be a poor quarter for new cars and a better period for used cars.

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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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