Pent-up demand and improved confidence drive UK’s new-car recovery

04 June 2021

New-car registrations in the UK continue to improve when set against pre-COVID levels. Autovista Group senior data journalist Neil King explores the figures and factors in the true values, with working days accounted for.

The recovery of the UK new-car market continued in May, with dealerships allowed to reopen for the whole month for the first time this year, following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions. The release of pent-up demand and improving business confidence, buoyed by the vaccination rollout and a comparatively low infection rate, are driving the market.

In total, 156,737 new cars were registered in the UK in May, according to data released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). As dealer activity was limited during the month last year, resulting in an almost eightfold increase, a comparison with pre-crisis 2019 provides a clearer picture of the market’s recovery.

At first glance, the 14.7% contraction versus 2019 is greater than the 12.1% decline in April. However, there were two fewer working days in the month than in May 2019. On an adjusted basis, Autovista Group calculates that the market declined by just 5.7% - an improvement on April. Furthermore, even with only 19 working days, the seasonally-adjusted annualised rate (SAAR) increased from 2.04 million units in April to 2.07 million last month – the highest level since August 2020.

‘With dealerships back open and a brighter, sunnier, economic outlook, May’s registrations are as good as could reasonably be expected. Increased business confidence is driving the recovery, something that needs to be maintained and translated in private-consumer demand as the economy emerges from pandemic support measures,’ commented Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive.

Forecast on track

The May figure aligns with Autovista Group’s expectations for the market and has improved the year-to-date comparison with 2019, albeit down 34.2%. The ongoing release of pent-up demand will continue to support the recovery in the short term – especially in June, as there are two more working days than last year. However, the positive effect of pent-up demand translating into registrations will disappear and there are concerns about the recovery of private demand, as Hawes alluded to.

Autovista Group has maintained its base-case forecast, which was upgraded last month to 1.89 million units, equating to 16% year-on-year growth in new-car registrations in 2021. Similarly, the SMMT noted that ‘uptake was in line with the most recent industry outlook.’

Nevertheless, this is still 18.1% lower than the market achieved in 2019. There are also downside risks such as increased COVID-19 infection rates because of the Delta (formerly Indian) variant, which may yet result in the imposition of further local, if not national, restrictions. Similarly, the base-case forecast assumes deliveries of new cars will not be significantly impaired by semiconductor shortages and/or post-Brexit border delays.

EV encouragement

The market shares of hybrid and electrically-chargeable vehicles (EVs) continue to rise in the UK, to the detriment of internal combustion engines (ICE). In the first five months of the year, the petrol share of the market, including mild-hybrids, was just above 60%, and diesels accounted for only 18% of all registrations.

The combined share of hybrids and EVs, 21.7%, already exceeds the diesel share. So far this year. hybrids accounted for the majority of electrified registrations, with 7.8%, but were surpassed by battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) in May.

With changes to the UK’s plug-in car grant, the SMMT recently lowered its expectations for the adoption of BEVs. They are now projected to make up 8.9% of registrations by the end of the year, down from 9.3% forecast in January. With plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) expected to claim 6.3% of the market, the SMMT expects EVs to comprise 15.2% of all cars registered in 2021.

‘Demand for electrified vehicles is helping encourage people into showrooms, but for these technologies to surpass their fossil-fuelled equivalents, a long-term strategy for market transition and infrastructure investment is required,’ said Hawes.