TO SAY that the car industry is navigating troubled waters right now would be like calling Jeremy Clarkson mildly opinionated. Those troubled waters appear to be filled with sea mines and enemy subs.
Increasingly tough measures against exhaust emissions, particularly the nitrogen oxides and particulates produced by diesel cars, have caused seismic shifts in buyer behaviour, and many car makers — including Toyota, Kia, Volvo and Porsche — last year set a date for abandoning such engines altogether.
A change in the way car emissions are tested was brought in last year. The new “WLTP” test is seen as a much more accurate reflection of real-world driving conditions than the old laboratory-based “NEDC” test (which VW infamously cheated in the dieselgate scandal), and almost every new car on sale had to be re-tested, causing delays in delivery to customers. It also continues to cause confusion over quoted MPG and CO2 figures, as customers (and journalists) struggle to compare one car’s efficiency with another.
Then there’s Brexit, which the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says has already damaged car manufacturing, investment and jobs in the UK, but the prospect of a no-deal scenario when the UK leaves the EU next month is much worse. In January, Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said the UK car industry is now on “red alert”, as “permanent devastation [would be] caused by severing our frictionless trade links overnight, not just with the EU but with the many other global markets with which we currently trade freely.”
Petrol, diesel, electric and hybrid sales
What it all has meant for car buyers is an extra cautious approach to making big ticket purchases, especially of houses and new cars. Last year, car sales fell by 6.8%, and the trend continued into the New Year, with total vehicle registrations in January dipping 1.6% on the same period last year. In February, there was a slight increase over the same month in 2018, up 1.4%, although the market is still quite stagnant.
Diesel cars continued to be a big turn-off for consumers last month: like-for-like sales were down 14.3% and market share fell from 35% to 29.6% year-on-year.
In contrast, registrations of “alternatively fuelled vehicles” (which include pure-electric, hydrogen fuel cell and hybrid cars) increased by 34%, which is up from the year-on-year rise of 26.3% in January, although their market share still remains relatively small, at 6.4% for 2019 so far.
Petrol power continued its triumphant return as fuel of choice, though, with the 53,164 registrations accounting for nearly two thirds (64.9%) of new car demand last month.
Top 10 most popular cars in 2019
Fords continue to reign supreme at the top of the sales charts, and last month four cars from the Blue Oval made the top 10. Volkswagen is also enjoying notable success, with three top 10 sellers in February. But looking at the total number of cars sold since January 1, 2019, here’s the top 10 best-sellers list:
1 Ford Fiesta
Number of registrations 8,798
The Ford Fiesta ended 2018 comfortably as the UK’s best-selling new car, and the supermini maintained that popularity in the first two months of 2019; it appears to be dominating the sales chart, with a big gap to its larger sibling, the Focus, in second spot.
Despite getting bigger with each new version, the Fiesta remains a delight to drive, with improvements in interior space and build quality over the old car and a great range of engine options further helping to make it a tempting buy.
2 Ford Focus
Number of registrations 6,934
It was a Ford one-two for a second month running in February, so the Focus has further consolidated its second spot in the sales chart. However, its upmarket rivals — the VW Golf and Mercedes A-class — aren’t at all far behind.
By comparison the new Focus still doesn’t have quite the same cachet but, despite its classless image, the Ford’s interior has a much more premium feel than ever before, and an impressive tech spec. What’s more, like the Fiesta, the Focus’ big USP is that it’s one of the best cars in its class to drive.
3 Volkswagen Golf
Number of registrations 6,340
The VW Golf had a storming January and backed that up with a solid third spot in February, racking up 2,410 registrations last month, only around 100 fewer than the Focus. It’s a timeless choice with a quality interior and decent driving dynamics, so it thoroughly deserves its success. However, with an all-new Golf due to go on sale soon it will be interesting to see how the current car fares before it’s replaced.
4 Mercedes-Benz A-class
Number of registrations 5,827
The new Mercedes A-class is really hitting the spot with buyers, it seems. With a plush interior, segment-leading tech spec, upmarket image and affordable finance deals, it’s not hard to see why so many British motorists are won over.
5 Nissan Qashqai
Number of registrations 5,719
In 2018 the Nissan Qashqai’s popularity appeared to be on the wane as a wave of new rivals recently entered the crowded compact SUV market, but it’s going strong in 2019 and was the surprise third best-selling car in January. Last month it still managed an impressive sixth in the table, and was the most popular SUV.
6 Volkswagen Polo
Number of registrations 4,475
Though attracting less than half the sales of its Ford Fiesta rival last month, with 1,512 registrations the Volkswagen Polo is still one of the UK’s most popular cars, and the second best-selling supermini — ahead even of the Vauxhall Corsa, proving buyers are increasingly wanting to be seen driving upmarket brands.
Like the Golf, its bigger brother, the VW Polo is a great all-rounder, with efficient engines, good ride quality, excellent build quality and arguably the supermini segment’s most impressive interior.
7 Vauxhall Corsa
Number of registrations 4,403
The current Vauxhall Corsa is in the twilight months of its life cycle, with a brand new version (sharing the same underpinnings as the forthcoming Peugeot 208, following Vauxhall’s acquisition by the PSA Group) due to go on sale before the end of the year.
It’s still a decent seller in the UK, but with 2,000 fewer registrations in February than its arch rival, the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall dealers will no doubt be champing at the bit for the 2019 model to arrive in showrooms.
8 Kia Sportage
Number of registrations 4,259
The Kia Sportage – a rival to the Nissan Qashqai – was the seventh best-seller in January but dropped out of the top 10 last month. Total registrations for 2019 see the Korean brand’s most popular model rank eighth for the year to date, though.
The current Sportage is better than ever, with its mid-life facelift in 2018 adding more efficient engines, an upgraded interior and more safety and convenience tech, such as adaptive cruise control.
9 Ford Kuga
Number of registrations 3,654
The Ford Kuga had a cracking February, with 1,402 sales — less than 50 shy of the Qashqai, suggesting it could be a tight battle between those two and the Sportage for king of the mid-size crossovers in 2019.
A mid-life facelift at the start of 2018 brought in a new infotainment system with touchscreen from Titanium trim upwards, it drives well for big car and it’s one of the better-looking SUVs.
10 Mercedes-Benz C-class
Number of registrations 3,593
Saloons might not be as popular as they once were, and although it was outsold by the Ford Ecosport and VW Tiguan in February, the Mercedes C-class had a strong start to the year and remains in the top 10 after two months of registration figures. There’s still life in three-box design yet, it seems — especially when they’re as upmarket inside and out as this.