The result comes after a surprisingly solid December minimised the misery expected by some.
Sales of new cars fell by almost 30 percent in 2020, as registrations slumped to the lowest level since 1992. That’s according to new figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which says the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit uncertainty are to blame.
The organisation, which represents the UK's car factories and dealers, has published data showing 1.63 million new cars were registered last year. That's a drop of 29.4 percent compared with the 2.31 million registered in 2019.
That massive drop in sales came amid a host of coronavirus-related restrictions, which saw dealerships forced to close their doors at points. It also came as negotiators laboured to a Brexit free-trade agreement, which was only struck on Christmas Eve – roughly a week before the December 31 deadline.
As a result, sales almost halved in March, which was expected to be much busier, thanks to the arrival of the then-new '20' registration plate. April was even worse, with sales almost completely wiped out.
With restrictions in place for more than nine months of the year, sales did rebound somewhat during the summer and autumn, culminating in a December that saw sales down by less than 11 percent on the same month in 2019.
And there was cause for further optimism in the electric and hybrid car sectors, both of which saw massive growth despite the overall decline in demand. Last year, electric car sales almost trebled, with 108,205 battery-powered cars hitting the road.
At the same time, plug-in hybrid sales almost doubled, rising to 66,877 for the year, while hybrid car sales grew by 12 percent. That means more than 110,000 new hybrids were registered, and that is before you count mild-hybrids, of which around 180,000 were sold last year.
Thanks to those figures, electric cars now make up 6.6 percent of the UK's new car market – up from 1.6 percent in 2019. Hybrids, meanwhile, account for 6.8 percent of all sales, while plug-in hybrids make up 4.1 percent of registrations.
Petrol, however, remains king of the automotive castle, with more than 900,000 new petrol-powered cars registered last year. That's 55.4 percent of the total. Add petrol-powered mild-hybrids to that figure and it rises to more than a million cars, or around 63 percent of registrations.
Diesel sales continued to suffer, down 52.5 percent on 2019 with just under 262,000 new diesels registered. That means although diesels made up more than a quarter of new car sales last year, the fuel now accounts for just 16 percent of registrations. However, many previously diesel-powered vehicles are now classed as mild-hybrid diesels, so the market share for 2020 was closer to 20 percent.
The Ford Fiesta remains the UK's most popular new car, but it's winning margin shrank in comparison with previous years. Just over 49,000 new Fiestas were registered last year, down from just under 78,000 in 2019.
"2020 will be seen as a ‘lost year’ for the automotive industry," said SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes, "with the sector under pandemic-enforced shutdown for much of the year and uncertainty over future trading conditions taking their toll. However, with the rollout of vaccines and clarity over our new relationship with the EU, we must make 2021 a year of recovery.
"With manufacturers bringing record numbers of electrified vehicles to market over the coming months, we will work with government to encourage drivers to make the switch, while promoting investment in our globally-renowned manufacturing base – recharging the market, industry and economy."