New car sales: UK records worst September since 1999

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Semiconductor shortage continues to batter the industry, with registrations plummeting in a traditionally bumper month

New figures released by the SMMT reveal that new car sales plummeted 34.4% year-on-year in September, traditionally one of the busiest months for the industry.

Just 214,312 cars were registered last month, the lowest September total since the ‘two-plate’ registration system was introduced in 1999. It is also 44.7% down on the ten-year average for September.

Even September 2020’s total – 328,000 cars registered – was a 22-year low, brought on by the pandemic-induced dealership and factory shutdowns that curtailed output last year.

The setback has been attributed to the ongoing shortage of semiconductor ‘chips’ which has throttled car production globally, leaving many factories idle for months at a time and extending new car lead times by several months.

But the rise in popularity of alternatively fuelled cars continues, with some 32,721 battery-electric cars (BEVs) registered in September, just 5850 fewer than were registered in the whole of 2019. It was the best month on record for BEV uptake, bringing the segment’s market share up to 15.2%. 

It was a relatively strong month for plug-in hybrids, too, which now claim a 6.4% market share, up 11.5% over 2020’s share, which meant some 6.4% of cars registered last month can be driven with the engine off. 

Demand from private car buyers dropped 25.3%, with just 120,560 cars purchased by individuals, but it was a 43.1% decline in fleet sales which had the biggest impact on September’s figures. 

SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes called the performance “desperately disappointing” but praised the efforts of manufacturers who are “taking every measure possible to maintain deliveries and customers can expect attractive offers on a range of new vehicles”.

He added: “Despite these challenges, the rocketing uptake of plug-in vehicles, especially battery electric cars, demonstrates the increasing demand for these new technologies. 

“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. Chargepoint roll-out must keep pace with the acceleration in plug-in vehicle registrations.” 

The figures come just days after the SMMT revealed the UK’s new car output dipped by 27% in August, also a result of the chip shortage, and year-to-date is 32% behind pre-pandemic 2019.

Hawes said last week that the situation is “extremely worrying both for the sector and its many thousands of workers nationwide”, and these latest registration figures will only exacerbate concerns.

“While not the only factor at play,” he added, “the impact of the semiconductor shortage on manufacturing can’t be overstated. 

“Car makers and their suppliers are battling to keep production lines rolling, with constraints expected to continue well into 2022 and possibly beyond”.