One industry body blamed the drop in sales on changes to the government's Plug-In Car Grant.
The British new car market fell by more than four percent in April, with sales of ultra-low-emission plug-in hybrid cars taking a surprise slide.
Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), show that sales of so-called alternatively fuelled vehicles - an umbrella term for hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric cars - have grown impressively of late, having risen by almost 21 percent last year. That trend continued in April, with sales up by almost 13 percent compared with the same month in 2018, but it was driven largely by sales of hybrid vehicles and battery-powered electric vehicles.
However, sales of plug-in hybrid cars, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, have now fallen dramatically, down 34.4 percent in April and more than 20 percent across the first four months of 2019. In comparison, sales of conventional hybrids such as the Toyota Prius were up 31 percent in April, while sales of electric vehicles (EVs) such as the Nissan Leaf rose 63.3 percent.
The SMMT claimed the reduction in sales of plug-in hybrid cars was “evidence of the consequences of prematurely removing upfront purchase incentives before the market is ready”, referencing the government’s decision to effectively remove its Plug-In Car Grant for plug-in hybrid vehicles at the tail end of 2018. This time last year, buyers of plug-in hybrid cars could get £2,500 off the car’s purchase price - a move intended to encourage drivers into these zero-emission-capable vehicles - but that incentive was effectively scrapped.
Mike Hawes, the SMMT’s chief executive, said the growth in sales of electric vehicles was encouraging, but the zero-emission cars still only account for a mere 0.9 percent of all new car sales. As a result, he urged the government to support drivers who want to move into the most modern and cleanest vehicles.
“While it’s great to see buyers respond to the growing range of pure electric cars on offer, they still only represent a tiny fraction of the market and are just one of a number of technologies that will help us on the road to zero [emissions]," he said. "Industry is working hard to deliver on this shared ambition, providing ever cleaner cars to suit every need.
“We need policies that help get the latest, cleanest vehicles on the road more quickly and support market transition for all drivers. This includes investment in infrastructure and long term incentives to make new technologies as affordable as possible.”