EVs drive UK new-car registrations growth in April

08 May 2024

The UK narrowly managed to extend its run of consecutive months of registrations growth in the new-car market during April, thanks to a strong electric vehicle (EV) performance. Autovista24 special content editor, Phil Curry, examines the state of the market.

The latest figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show a 21st month of new-car registration growth in the UK during April, but only just. Deliveries were up by 1% year on year, with EVs and hybrids responsible for this increase.

April is traditionally a slower month in the UK new-car market. Buyers will often push for their vehicles to be delivered in March, taking advantage of the country’s biannual plate change. This helped the UK record growth in that month when other European markets struggled, with the early Easter holiday impacting figures.

However, as these markets bounced back in April, the UK struggled, while still managing growth in the month. Therefore, all eyes will be on the SMMT’s May figures to see how the market is truly performing.

EVs drives market growth

The UK’s new-car market saw 134,274 units delivered to customers last month, an increase of just 1,284 cars compared to April 2023. This growth was driven by EVs and hybrids, with the plug-in market enjoying the best volume improvement.

Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) saw registrations grow by 10.7%, with 22,717 units taking to the road. This made the technology the second-most-popular powertrain in the UK once again. After a lacklustre March, the market share of BEVs improved year on year to 16.9%, up from 15.4% in April last year.

Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) experienced the highest delivery increase last month, with 10,493 units equating to a 22.1% rise. The powertrain is seeing improved interest, after leading the increases in March. Its market share is still low in comparison to its rivals, sitting at 7.8% in April. However, this was an increase over its 6.5% hold in the same month last year. The technology is also increasing its market-share gap to diesel.

This means that the combined EV market saw growth of 14.1% in April, with a total of 33,210 passenger cars delivered, an increase of 4,093 units on last year's figure. EVs held almost a quarter of the UK market in the month, with their 24.7% showing up on April 2023’s share of 21.9%.

Petrol’s poor performance

It was this performance that kept the UK in overall growth during April, as internal-combustion engine (ICE) models struggled. The SMMT combines mild-hybrid powertrains with their respective ICE categories, mixing the technologies into a single segment of the market.

Petrol-powered cars recorded a 3.1% drop, with 74,877 units registered. This was the first decline for the powertrain since July 2022, prior to the supply-chain crisis starting to ease. While petrol continued to dominate the UK market, with a 55.8% market share, this was a significant drop on the 58.1% recorded last year.

Diesel suffered a steep decline,  with registrations 25.3% lower than those seen in April 2023, equating to 8,649 units. This resulted in a 6.4% market share, becoming the least popular of all powertrain technologies.

Combined, the ICE market saw deliveries fall by 6% last month. While it held a 62.2% market share, this was down on last year’s 66.8% figure.

Full hybrids (HEVs) achieved a 16.7% increase in registrations last month, with 17,538 registrations. This gave the powertrain technology a 13.1% share of the market, up 1.8 percentage points (pp) from April 2023.

The market can, therefore, be grateful for the performance of EVs in helping it achieve growth in April. While BEVs are coming under pressure in some of the UK’s media outlets, with questions about their viability, the performance of ICE in April’s figures highlights that there is a place for the technology around the automotive powertrain table.

Car parc ages again

April’s slim growth was also down to the performance of the fleet sector, as private registrations dropped for a sixth-consecutive month.

While deliveries to fleets are often higher than the private market, due to the volumes ordered by companies, the sector has been the market leader since February 2023. In April, fleet registrations rose 18.5% with 81,207 units, meaning more than six in 10 new cars delivered in the month went to large companies.

In contrast, private buyer uptake fell by 17.7% to 50,458 units, while business registrations also declined, down 16.1% to 2,609 units.

Private buyers are likely to be more affected by the cost-of-living crisis. This would lead to drivers holding on to their vehicles for longer, rather than trading them in for a newer, more expensive model. This trend is reflected in the UK’s latest car parc data, released by the SMMT last month.

The average age of a passenger car in the UK now sits at nine years old. This has increased by a year since 2019. Of the 35.7 million cars on the country’s roads, 68.5% are over seven-years-old, with 30.7% of the overall parc over 12 years of age.

However, despite a record number of vehicles on the road, average car CO2 dropped 2.1% in the UK overall, while company car emissions plummeted by 11.5%. The SMMT attributes this drop to compelling fiscal incentives encouraging fleets to invest in EVs and manufacturer investment in new low- and zero-emission models.

Potential restrictions on petrol

While the overall increase in BEV demand is positive, The SMMT states that urgent action is needed to re-enthuse private buyers into switching from ICE to zero-emission technology.

Fewer than one in six new BEVs bought in April went to consumers, whose uptake volumes fell by 21.9%. A lack of government incentives for private motorists remains a barrier that the industry body states cannot be overcome by carmakers alone.

With the zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate in force, requiring 22% of carmaker sales in 2024 to be emission-free, there are concerns that the lack of private uptake will cause targets to be missed.

At the recent Financial Times Future of the Car event in London, Martin Sander, general manager, Ford Model e Europe, suggested the carmaker could restrict sales of petrol models in the UK to ensure it met its targets and did not encounter fines.

‘We cannot push EVs into the market against demand. We are not going to pay penalties. We are not going to sell EVs at huge losses just to buy compliance. The only alternative is to take our shipments of [ICE] vehicles to the UK down and sell these vehicles somewhere else,’ Sander stated.

Based on current conditions, the SMMT’s latest market outlook shows a diminishing share for BEVs despite a growing overall new car market. A total of 1.984 million new cars are now anticipated to be registered in 2024, a 4.2% rise on last year, and a 0.5% increase on the body’s January outlook.

However, BEV volumes for this year have been revised downwards by 5.2%, with the anticipated market share now 19.8%, significantly below the target of 22% per manufacturer. While the scheme’s flexibilities mean manufacturers can still meet government-mandated targets, any long-term success depends on a growing market built on strong consumer EV demand.

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