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 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 2019. Year-to-date sales are down 2.7%, with registrations in April falling by 4.1% compared with the same period in 2018.
Diesel cars continued to be a turn-off for consumers last month, though April’s like-for-like drop of 9.4% does suggest the decline is starting to slow. Despite their reduced share of the new car market, diesel models still resonate with many car buyers — 238,373 “oil burners” have been sold in the UK so far this year.
In contrast, registrations of “alternatively fuelled vehicles” (which include pure-electric, hydrogen fuel cell and hybrid cars) increased by 12.7% last month, and 14.3% for the year so far. However, as they account for only 51,091 sales so far this year (of which only 7,499 were pure-electric), they make up only a small slither of the 862,100 new cars sold in 2019 to date. This is expected to change dramatically through 2019 as a host of new models arrive, including the Tesla Model 3, Kia eNiro and Hyundai Kona Electric, and supply issues (partly due to hold ups in battery production) are resolved.
Petrol power continued its triumphant return as fuel of choice, making up roughly two-thirds of all new cars registered in the UK over the last four months. Unusually, though, petrol car sales saw a slight year-on-year drop in April, with demand falling by 3%.
Top 10 most popular cars in 2019
The Ford Fiesta supermini continues its dominant run as Britain’s most popular new car, but seven car manufacturers are represented in the top 10 for 2019 so far. with five different brands covering the top six most popular new models for the year-to-date. 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 29,080
The Ford Fiesta ended 2018 comfortably as the UK’s best-selling new car, and the supermini maintained that popularity in the first three months of 2019; it appears to be dominating the sales chart, finishing April in top spot with 5,606 registrations and a big gap to its second-placed larger sibling, the Focus (4,565 registrations).
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 Volkswagen Golf
Number of registrations 21,365
Consistent popularity has made the Volkswagen Golf the UK’s best-selling family hatchback for 2019-to-date and runner-up in the year-to-date sales charts, too. Just… the Ford Focus is nipping at its heels.
The Golf is a timeless choice with a high quality interior and decent driving dynamics, so it thoroughly deserves its success. It also bodes well for the all-new Golf that’s due to go on sale before the end of the year.
3 Ford Focus
Number of registrations 21,233
After slumping to fourth in the sales charts last month, the Ford Focus has returned to the podium places after outperforming the Golf in April. With retaining its everyman appeal the new Focus has a much more upmarket cabin that the one found in previous generations, while continuing to excel in the area of handling and driving pleasure. And with good standard equipment levels, it’s no surprise the Focus is still a strong seller.
4 Vauxhall Corsa
Number of registrations 20,375
It wasn’t able to cling on to its runner-up spot from last month, but the Vauxhall Corsa remains one of the UK’s best-selling new cars, with 2,728 registrations in April enough to keep the Fiesta rival in fourth place for the year to date. Vauxhall will no doubt be looking to shift as many Corsas as possible off forecourts before an all-new model replaces the current car later this year.
5 Mercedes-Benz A-class
Number of registrations 20,216
The new Mercedes A-class is really hitting the spot with British buyers, it seems: the premium hatch accounts for nearly a third of Mercedes’ sales in the UK, and it’s not at all afr behind the Corsa for total sales in 2019. With a lush interior, segment-leading tech spec, upmarket image and affordable finance deals, it’s not hard to see why so many motorists are won over.
6 Nissan Qashqai
Number of registrations 20,211
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. Despite the fresh-faced competition, the Qashqai going strong in 2019, sitting comfortably ahead of its closest rivals in sixth-place overall. April was a particularly good month for the model, with 3,791 registrations making it the best-selling crossover, ahead of the Ford Kuga (3,455 registrations), VW Tiguan (2,822) and Hyundai Tucson (2,702).
7 Volkswagen Polo
Number of registrations 16,111
It’s not giving the Ford Fiesta any sleepless nights, but the Volkswagen Polo is still one of the UK’s most popular new cars, proving buyers are increasingly wanting to be seen driving upmarket brands. In April VW sold 3,022 Polos in the UK.
Like the Golf, its bigger brother, the Polo is a great all-rounder with efficient engines, good ride quality and arguably the supermini segment’s most impressive interior.
8 Ford Kuga
Number of registrations 14,260
It’s trailing the Nissan Qashqai on registrations but the Ford Kuga is currently runner-up in the UK SUV sales charts for 2019 overall, and Britain’s sixth most popular new car in April, with 3,455 registrations. The Kuga’s performance is even more impressive when you consider its successor is imminent — an all-new version of the family-friendly Ford will arrive in showrooms later this year.
9 Kia Sportage
Number of registrations 13,329
Perhaps the surprise entry on this list is the Kia Sportage — it vanished from the overall top 10 in February and hasn’t been in the monthly top 10 since January, yet the Qashqai rival has crept back into the list. Like many cars in its class, the Sportage fares well as a comfy and practical family SUV, though has the added benefit of Kia’s seven-year/100,00-mile warranty.
10 MINI Hatch
Number of registrations 13,280
It was always going to be an uphill struggle for the MINI Hatch to repeat March’s bumper sales figures (up 289%), but April was strong enough for the retro runabout to remain the top 10 for the year overall. It will be interesting to see if the upmarket supermini can maintain this form for the rest of 2019, before a new pure-electric version arrives in 2020.