New figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show an 11.3% year-on-year rise in new car registrations in July following a four-month downward trend.
The uptick is the first time registrations have climbed since December last year and comes in the wake of the pandemic-induced shutdown, during which car sales effectively ceased.
Some 174,887 new cars were registered last month, roughly 30,000 more than in June and 170,000 more than in April, when lockdown prevented factories and dealerships from opening. However, overall sales figures for 2020 are expected to clearly show the impact of the pandemic, with registrations predicted to be down roughly 30%.
For the year to date, registrations are down 41.9% - or 598,054 units - compared with the first seven months of 2019. The SMMT estimates that the sector will record a sales loss worth £20 billion this year.
Showrooms were given the green light to reopen in June, allowing them to start shifting stock for the first time in more than two months. Before that, only limited trade was possible on a click-and-collect basis.
Private car sales recorded a significant 20.4% increase in July, which the SMMT attributes to consumers being able to belatedly change into a new car and taking advantage of various manufacturer-backed incentive schemes. Although fleet sales recorded a more modest 5.2% increase, they still account for just over half of the market.
Sales of pure-electric cars climbed 259.4% and plug-in hybrids 320.3%, giving electrified cars a 9.0% market share last month. Elsewhere, sales of petrol-powered cars rose by just 0.3% and diesel sales fell for another month, recording a 25.9% drop.
With superminis and small family cars remaining the two most popular vehicle categories, the Ford Fiesta and Focus continue to hold the first and second spot respectively in the best-selling models list, followed by the Vauxhall Corsa, Volkswagen Golf, Nissan Qashqai and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
Commenting on the figures, Rachael Prasher, managing director of Autocar sibling title What Car? told the BBC: "This is very welcome news to the UK's automotive sector and a testament to all the hard work put in to kickstart the industry by dealers and manufacturers as lockdown eased.
"After nearly three months of closed doors, it is great that the industry has demonstrated it remains so robust. However, with this month's success driven largely as a result of pent-up demand and lease cycles, there is still much hard work to do ahead."
SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes also welcomed the news: "July’s figures are positive, with a boost from demand pent up from earlier in the year and some attractive offers, meaning there are some very good deals to be had. We must be cautious, however, as showrooms have only just fully reopened nationwide and there is still much uncertainty about the future.
"By the end of September we should have a clearer picture of whether or not this is a long-term trend. Although this month’s figures provide hope, the market remains fragile in the face of possible future spikes and localised lockdowns as well as, sadly, probable job losses across the economy. The next few weeks will be crucial in showing whether or not we are on the road to recovery."