New car registrations in the UK plummeted 44.4% year-on-year last month as the coronavirus outbreak closed showrooms and kept customers at home.
The latest figures from the SMMT show that 254,684 new cars were registered in March – 203,370 fewer than in the same period last year. The organisation has now adjusted its market outlook for the year ahead, predicting that 2020 will end with a total of 1.73 million new car registrations in the UK. That's down 23% on the prediction it made in January.
The decline is steeper than that recorded during the 2009 financial crisis and represents the worst March since the UK adopted a bi-annual numberplate change system in the late 1990s. March is customarily a busy month for vehicle retail in the UK as buyers rush to buy a car with a new-reg plate.
While demand for petrol cars fell 40.4% and diesel cars fell 61.9%, the SMMT notes that registrations for battery electric vehicles surged by nearly 300% to 11,694 units, giving BEVs a 4.6% market share. Plug-in hybrid registrations jumped 38%, but traditional hybrid vehicles fell 7.1%.
Demand from private buyers fell by 40.4%, while fleet registrations dropped by 47.4%.
The Volkswagen Golf topped the best-sellers list, with 7103 units sold across the month. The Ford Fiesta followed close behind with 6687 units and the Mini hatchback was in third place with 6019. In terms of manufacturer performance, Smart was the worst hit of the mainstream car brands, registering an 85.91% drop in registrations last month. Lexus, meanwhile, saw only a 17.31% decline, while Lotus registered just 15.38% fewer cars.
A Lexus spokesperson suggested that the recent arrival of the brand's new UX crossover, along with strong demand for hybrids, helped to dampen the sales impact of the shutdown but noted that "most of the cars delivered in March were sold in the months prior, so the deliveries were spread evenly throughout the month rather than back-weighted".
The figures also reveal the impact that lockdown procedures have had on other countries’ new car markets. Spain dropped 69% year-on-year, France 72% and Italy, which was one of the first European countries to implement a general shutdown, 85%.
SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said: “With the country locked down in crisis mode for a large part of March, this decline will come as no surprise. Despite this being the lowest March since we moved to the bi-annual plate change system, it could have been worse had the significant advanced orders placed for the new 20 plate not been delivered in the early part of the month.
“We should not, however, draw long-term conclusions from these figures, other than this being a stark realisation of what happens when economies grind to a halt.”
It's not yet clear when production facilities and showrooms will be able to restart operations. Ferrari was the first European mainstream manufacturer to set a date for its return, but it remains unclear whether its Maranello factory will reopen its doors on 14 April as planned.