Worst ‘new plate’ September on record for new car registrations

Britain’s new car market continues to suffer the effects of the pandemic, with new figures revealing September was the worst ‘plate change’ month for new car registrations on record.

Data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reveals a total of 328,041 cars were registered throughout the month, down 15.8% on the 10-year average for September, its the lowest figure recorded since the introduction of the system which sees plate numbers change every six months in 1999.

Although that represents a modest 4.4% decline year-on-year, last September was also hit hard due to delays in vehicle certification due to the introduction of the WLTP emissions testing regime. Business demand was harder hit than private registrations, both down 5.8% and 1.1% respectively.

However, there is positive news when looking at registrations of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Registrations for them have increased by 184.3% year-on-year, with September accounting for a third of all BEV registrations in 2020. With 21,903 examples registered, it means that both BEV and plug-in hybrid registrations were more than 10% of total registrations last month.

Since Covid-19 lockdown restrictions were lifted in June, when many production lines also restarting, the market has gradually picked up. However, SMMT Chief Executive Mike Hawes states emphatically that this is “not a recovery” as registrations are well below where they should be for September.

“Despite the boost of a new registrations plate, new model introductions and attractive offers, this is still the poorest September since the two-plate system was introduced in 1999. Unless the pandemic is controlled and economy-wide consumer and business confidence rebuilt, the short-term future looks very challenging indeed.”

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Alongside the pandemic, the SMMT lists further industry challenges including the continued uncertainty over Brexit and the threat of EU tariffs, the increased investment to meet the shift towards zero emission vehicles and the end of the government’s furlough scheme this month. It is believed that the latter will see wider-scale unemployment across the sector.

The SMMT now predicts that the end of 2020 will see an overall market decline of 30.6%, equivalent to around £21.2bn in lost sales. Around 615,000 registrations have been lost in 2020, it is claimed.

Further trends, including the shrinking demand for diesel vehicles, have continued: the fuel accounted for just 22.2% of the market last month, with petrol accounting for 65%. The SMMT continues to separate out increasing mild hybrid petrol and diesel registrations from this tally, however.

At a manufacturer level, the breakdown of figures also make interesting reading. The biggest winner over the month was MG, recording a huge 169% boost in registrations compared to September 2019. Audi also recorded a 71.8% rise, with Volkswagen and Skoda also up 39.2% and 18.3% respectively. It’s thought the VW Group figure are partly due to last year’s WLTP-related disruption.

Topping the list of poor performers are Alfa Romeo, down 33.8% year-on-year in September. Vauxhall, typically a strong performer, saw a drop of 28.4%, with BMW also down 23.7% and Citroen down 20.2%.

One suggested reason for the dramatic drops is a reduction in pre-registrations –  i.e. a car registered to a dealer before it is sold onto a customer. The tactic has often been used to shore up registrations by manufacturers when required.

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