New car registrations rose by 674 per cent in May compared to the same month last year when showrooms were closed during lockdowns.
However, sales remained below 2019 levels, industry data showed on Friday.
Total registrations stood at 156,737, boosted by business fleet demand, far higher than the 20,247 cars sold in May 2020 but still short of the 183,724 purchases made in 2019, according to figures shared by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
The VW Golf was the most-bought new model last month. Vauxhall’s Corsa was second in the list, extending its 2021 lead at the top of sales charts ahead of the long-standing best seller and closest rival, the Ford Fiesta.
A year-on-year three-figure percentage increase in registrations was always on the cards last month.
Dealers reopened their doors to the public on April 12 in England and have welcomed customers into their showrooms since.
Rewind a year and the sector was forced to close throughout May 2020 during the first national lockdown.
Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said that while the stats offer a ‘brighter, sunnier, economic outlook’, May’s registrations are ‘as good as could reasonably be expected’.
Registrations in May represented an almost eightfold increase on the same month last year, but is down 14.7 per cent on pre-pandemic May 2019, and 13.2 per cent lower than the 10-year May average.
Uptake was in line with the most recent industry outlook, published in April, which sees the sector anticipating around 1.86 million registrations by the end of the year – with 723,845 achieved so far.
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Vauxhall Corsa extends lead at the top of 2021 sales charts
While the VW Golf was the best-selling new model in May (4,181 registered) it was the Vauxhall Corsa that stretched its lead at the top of the 2021 sales charts.
Some 3,643 registrations in May saw the Vauxhall supermini become the second best-seller last month. It outperformed the Ford Fiesta, which has been the UK’s best-selling car for the last 12 years running.
The Corsa has been the UK’s best-selling car so far this year, with 20,024 registered in the first five months of 2021. Its all-electric Corsa-e has also been the best-selling new electric car in the small Battery Electric Vehicle sector this year, with 2,204 registered.
It means the Corsa is now 3,324 sales ahead of the Ford – a lead that could prove difficult for the US brand to claw back in the remaining seven months of the year.
Paul Willcox, managing director at Vauxhall UK, said: ‘As a British brand, it’s fantastic to see the Corsa remain the UK’s best-selling new car.’
Against a more positive economic backdrop – including Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasting a 7.2 per cent increase in UK GDP during 2021 – fleet registrations grew more than twice as fast as private purchases in May.
Large fleets accounted for 50.7 per cent of all new vehicles hitting the road, demonstrating improving business confidence compared to the same month last year.
It means that total registrations for 2021 sit at 296,448 fewer units – down 29.1 per cent – than the average recorded across January to May during the last decade.
The SMMT said this was further evidence ‘of the scale of the recovery still needed given the impact of Covid on the market’, which is also being stalled by the lack of semi-conductor chips.
Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said: ‘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.
‘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.’
Richard Peberdy, automotive lead at KPMG UK, said motorists are still ‘taking their time to re-evaluate what vehicle they require to meet their changing commuting habits’, though the latest data shows signs that sales are ‘ripe for recovery’ in the longer term.
‘The average age of vehicles on our roads is at a record high, suggesting many drivers will be looking to switch soon, and inventory shortages in the used-vehicle market should push motorists towards new models.
‘While continuing supply chain challenges squeeze carmakers’ earnings, dealers will benefit as low stock creates an opportunity for them to build more margin.’
Sue Robinson, chief executive of the National Franchised Dealers Association, said dealers are ‘optimistic about the months ahead’ but warned that ‘tightness’ in supply may affect registrations of new cars over the summer.