Why April's 10.4% jump in car registrations isn't what you might think

22nd May 2018

Audi RS6 Interior

At first inspection, it may seem that the UK car industry has much reason to be heartened by the latest figures for new car registrations recorded in April 2018, as released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

Not only, in fact, did the 167,911 units registered during the month easily exceed the 152,076 seen in April 2017 - equating to a 10.4% rise - but private demand was even stronger, with the 75,607 registrations seen in April 2018 comparing to just 59,861 a year earlier (a 26.3% jump).

There was an even more stellar percentage increase in demand for Alternatively Fuelled Vehicles (AFVs) - also known as plug-in and hybrid electric cars - by 49.3% on the figure recorded for April 2017. So, what reason did SMMT and the wider British car industry have for voicing considerable caution over the figures?

Several factors are skewing the figures

As SMMT Chief Executive Mike Hawes stated in response to the latest figures, "it's important not to look at one month in isolation" - and sure enough, the stark rise in registrations was not unexpected for a host of reasons.

The timing of Easter this year certainly made a difference, given that it meant two more selling days in April 2018 than in the same month last year. March also saw a notorious cold wave from Siberia - 'the Beast from the East' - that probably served to delay some deliveries into the following month.

However, the commencement of a punitive new VED regime on 1st April 2017 is thought to have had an even greater influence on the percentage rise on last year's figures.

This meant that - as reported at the time by the AM-online website and other media outlets - March 2017 was a bumper month for new car registrations, with a new record being set prior to a depressed market the following month.

A mixed picture for the UK car market

In any case, when one applies greater scrutiny to the most recently released figures, it becomes clear that the situation ahead for the British car industry is far from clear.

As impressive as the heightening of private demand was, for example, the fleet market remained almost the same, going up by just 0.9%, to 87,486 in April 2018 from 86,686 a year earlier.

Then, there is the significant drop in business registrations to consider. 5,529 cars in this category were registered in April last year, but last month saw a mere 4,818 by comparison, which translates to a 12.9% decrease.

Those business numbers, however, are quite a small part of the wider car market, with business registrations only accounting for 3.6% of all UK car registrations in April 2017, and dropping still further to 2.9% as of the most recent April.

Diesel on the wane, but petrol, plug-in and hybrid electric on the up

Many motoring industry figures will therefore be much more alarmed by the stark fall in the number of people registering diesel cars in the UK, from 68,403 in April 2017 to 51,377 in April 2018.

That works out as almost a quarter (24.9%) fewer over just 12 months, meaning the market share for diesel cars in April this year was only 30.6%, compared to 45% a year ago.

Such a steep decline, however, does have to be seen in the context of the aforementioned rise in plug-in and hybrid electric car ownership by almost half (49.3%), as well as the 38.5% higher demand for petrol cars.

On a segment-by-segment basis, meanwhile, the most pronounced growth was recorded for superminis, at 27%, which narrowly shaded the 26.8% increase in registrations for dual-purpose cars.

Unfortunately, though, alternatively fuelled vehicles still only account for 5.6% of the market, having had a 4.1% share in April 2017.

It all means that despite the eye-catching rises in popularity for certain categories of car, the overall new car market still isn't as strong during the year to date as it was at this stage of 2017.

In fact, new car registrations are 8.8% lower overall on a year-on-year basis in the four months of 2018 so far, equating to 886,400 units compared to last year's 972,092.

What have the industry experts been saying?

Industry observers were quick to note the uncertain and potentially misleading picture painted by April's figures, with Hawes stating that "while the continuing growth in demand for plug-in and hybrid cars is positive news, the market share of these vehicles remains low and will do little to offset damaging declines elsewhere."

The SMMT boss added, alluding to the politics that have cast a shroud over diesel vehicles: "Consumers need certainty about future policies towards different fuel types, including diesel, and a compelling package of incentives to deliver long-term confidence in the newest technologies."

As reported by CarDealer, another key observer who was by no means ignorant to the ambiguous factors underlying the rise in registrations was Auto Trader manufacturing and agency director Ian Plummer, who said: "Unfortunately, this increase doesn't mean that the underlying market has suddenly bounced back.

"Instead, it simply reflects the fact that April 2017 was especially weak as a result of new car buyers pulling their purchases forward to Q1 ahead of the implementation of the new VED rules. May could well see a similar but smaller bounceback, with June likely to show more of the underlying trend."

Meanwhile, Ian Gilmartin - head of retail and wholesale at Barclays Corporate Banking - pointed out that with the exception of last year, the latest figures still showed the weakest April for UK car registrations since 2013.

COO at Carwow, Andrew Hooks, sounded a similarly pessimistic note, declaring that "today's results do not mark a recovery. The reality is that the car industry - and the consumer - need clarity of strategy from the government, including a practical and actionable plan to manage the long-term transition from fossil fuel to alternatives over the next 20 years."

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There are certain things that you can't control as a driver on British roads - not least the general direction of the car market and the associated government policies in the years ahead, and the implications that might have for you.

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