European car registrations fell 2.3% in July - the first time the market has declined in almost three years, according to automotive business analysts JATO Dynamics.
The 2.3% drop in sales translates into a fall from 1.18 million in July 2015 to 1.16m for the same period this year.
JATO believes that two fewer working days in July may have contributed to the fall in sales, alongside the significant decline for two of the largest European car groups, PSA Peugeot Citroën and the Volkswagen Group. PSA recorded a 13.2% fall in its registrations and the Volkswagen Group's dropped by 8.8%.
However, despite the overall decline, SUV sales continued to grow, increasing registrations by 11.9% compared with July 2015, and it now accounts for 25.5% of the overall market. The Nissan Qashqai kept its position as the best-selling SUV, registering 18,373 units, but this was a 6.9% drop on the same period last year. Growth in the segment was driven by the Qashqai's newer rivals such as the Renault Kadjar (sales up 127%) Hyundai Tucson (up 586%) and Kia Sportage (up 24%).
JATO’s global automotive analyst, Felipe Munoz, put the growth of the SUV segment down to the introduction by manufacturers of models across all body sizes, as well as safety-conscious buyers’ preference for a higher driving position.
Across the board, France experienced a fall of 9.6% and Germany a 3.9% drop. Italy posted an increase of 2.6% and registrations rose 4.4% in Spain. The UK recorded a negligible increase of 0.1%.
Volkswagen was the best-selling brand overall, with 136,393 units registered (accounting for 11.8% of the total market) but suffered a 10.8% drop for the year to date. Skoda and Peugeot both recorded a 10.5% drop.
Mercedes-Benz posted the highest increase in the top 10, at 3.7%. Outside of the top 10, Dacia (up 11.5%), Suzuki (up 19.5%), Mini (up 10.7%), Land Rover (up 33%), Honda (up 15.3%), Jaguar (up 32.5%) and Jeep (up 11.4%) all recorded double-digit growth, largely driven by SUV sales. Infiniti posted an increase of 218%, with 1768 registrations.
The Volkswagen Golf was still the best-selling model, with 36,540 units registered in July. By comparison, Volkswagen registered 46,628 Golfs in July 2015. This decline coincides with the new-generation Opel/Vauxhall Astra becoming the fourth best-selling car in Europe, with 20,954 registrations – up 26% on the same period last year.
In the supermini segment, the Opel/Vauxhall Corsa posted an increase of 9.2%, while rivals suffered drops – most notably, the Volkswagen Polo (down 6.1%), Ford Fiesta (down 3.3%) and Renault Clio (down 11.4%).
Another notable growth area was the sports car market, which expanded by 10% to 0.9% of the overall market. The big winner in this segment was the Ford Mustang, followed by the Mazda MX-5 and Fiat 124 Spider.
MPV registrations continued to decline, with a fall of 11%, despite the strong performance of the Volkswagen Touran (up 144%).
JATO's Munoz said: “Despite July’s slightly disappointing results, the full-year figures are unlikely to be impacted too severely. The lower growth rates we are currently seeing are likely to moderate the larger growth rates we have seen in some of the biggest markets over the past three years.”
Munoz also explained the fluctuation: “The July fall is mostly explained by factors like the two fewer working days than July 2015. Brexit is not really the cause. Its effects are still to come. French car registrations wouldn’t have fallen so much had the two months had the same number of working days.
“The July results were expected to happen this way. Besides the UK, other big and mid-size markets like Italy, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland started to show lower growth rates during the last three months. After 34 months of continuous increases, this July fall is the beginning of more moderate growth rates.”
Despite the remarkable growth of the SUV segment, the European car market remains an unstable place, said Munoz, with political upset across the continent. Turkey’s recent instability caused a 30% fall in its July car market. However, unlike with the financial downturn of the late 2000s, car manufacturers today are better prepared for instability.
Danni Bagnall and Jimi Beckwith