UK car sales plunge but electric vehicles soar to record amid fuel crisis

Global chip shortage helps push car registrations to lowest level for more than two decades

The number of electric cars sold in the UK last month neared the figures for the whole of 2019, with panic-buying at the petrol pumps expected to accelerate consumer appetite to switch to cleaner vehicles.

Nearly 33,000 pure electric cars were registered in a record month for EVs, almost 50% more than last year, as sales of new cars otherwise tumbled to the weakest September total for more than two decades.

The global shortages of semiconductors affecting car manufacturers was a major factor as only 215,312 new cars in total were registered last month, the worst number since 1998, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

car sales chart

Numbers were a third down from even last September, when Covid-19 restrictions were dampening the buying and selling of cars, and down almost 45% compared with the 10-year average before the pandemic.

September is normally the second-busiest month of the year for the industry. Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, said the headline figures were “desperately disappointing” and further evidence of the impact that the shortage of semiconductors, especially from Asia, was having on the industry.

Battery-powered cars took a record slice of the new car market in a month that ended with fuel supply issues dominating the news, as motorists struggled to find petrol or diesel to fill their tanks. About 15% of new cars sold were pure electric, up from 11% in August, with almost 7,000 Tesla Model 3 vehicles alone joining Britain’s roads as the bestselling EV.

With long lead times for most EV deliveries, analysts said it was too soon for the impact of the fuel crisis to show up in sales. However, Jamie Hamilton, automotive director at Deloitte, added: “The inconvenience of long queues and empty pumps has jump-started many motorists to explore the switch to electric.”

Car retail websites such as Auto Trader reported surging interest in electric cars after 24 September, when news that the shortage of lorry and tanker drivers was affecting forecourt fuel supplies led to widespread panic-buying at the pumps.

James Fairclough, the chief executive of AA Cars, said: “For those already thinking of going electric, the sight of electric vehicle drivers breezing past long queues at service stations during September’s fuel crisis may have been a clincher.”

car sales

Hawes called on the government to step up investment in charging points. “The rocketing uptake of plug-in vehicles, especially battery electric cars, demonstrates the increasing demand for these new technologies,” he said.

“However, to meet our collective decarbonisation ambitions, we need to ensure all drivers can make the switch – not just those with private driveways – requiring a massive investment in public recharging infrastructure. Charge-point rollout must keep pace with the acceleration in plug-in vehicle registrations.”

Plug-in hybrid cars also increased their share to 6.4%, meaning more than one in five new cars sold in September was capable of zero-emission driving.

Sales of diesel cars continued their steep decline, with 77% fewer sold than a year ago. Only one in 20 new cars sold in the UK was a pure diesel last month.

Overall demand for new cars fell most among large fleet buyers, who bought 43% fewer vehicles than a year ago. Demand from private buyers fell 25% from last September. New car sales so far this year are only 5.9% better than 2020 figures – the worst year for three decades – and down 29% on the pre-pandemic decade-long average.

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Seán Kemple, the managing director of Close Brothers Motor Finance, said it could be March next year before there was a real recovery in car sales.

“The ongoing chip shortage, compounded by rocketing manufacturing costs, continues to present challenges for dealers, manufacturers and consumers,” he said.

“Consumer demand is there, but choice is stifled. Buyers are turning to ‘nearly new’ options, a growing trend where vehicles up to 12 months old are outstripping the price of their new counterparts. The supply chain pressures are unlikely to ease up this side of Christmas and with secondhand vehicles going for premium prices, customers looking for a car are left in an unenviable position.”

Top 10 bestselling battery electric cars in September 2021

  1. Tesla Model 3 – 6,879

  2. Volkswagen ID.3 – 2,056

  3. Kia Niro – 1,881

  4. Renault Zoe – 1,337

  5. Mercedes EQA – 1,325

  6. Audi e-tron – 1,318

  7. MG 5 – 1,135

  8. Nissan Leaf – 1,066

  9. Hyundai Kona – 1,010

  10. Peugeot e-208 – 946


Julia Kollewe and Gwyn Topham

The GuardianTramp

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