Don’t want to read about the overall health of the UK car market? Click to jump straight to the top 10 best-selling cars of the year
TO SAY that the car industry is navigating troubled waters right now would be like calling Jeremy Clarkson mildly opinionated. Those troubled waters appear to be filled with sea mines and enemy subs.
Increasingly tough measures against exhaust emissions — particularly the nitrogen oxides and particulates produced by diesel cars — have caused seismic shifts in buyer behaviour, and in 2018 many car makers (including Toyota, Kia, Volvo and Porsche) set a date for abandoning diesel engines altogether.
A change in the way car emissions are tested was brought in for 2018. The new “WLTP” test is seen as a much more accurate reflection of real-world driving conditions than the old laboratory-based “NEDC” test (which VW infamously cheated in the dieselgate scandal). The switchover has caused confusion over quoted MPG and CO2 figures, as customers (and journalists) struggle to compare one car’s efficiency with another.
Then there’s Brexit, which the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says has already damaged car manufacturing, investment and jobs in the UK, but the prospect of a no-deal scenario when the UK leaves the EU is much worse. In January, Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said the UK car industry is now on “red alert”, as “permanent devastation [would be] caused by severing our frictionless trade links overnight, not just with the EU but with the many other global markets with which we currently trade freely.”
Petrol, diesel, electric and hybrid sales
What it all has meant for car buyers is an extra cautious approach to making big ticket purchases, especially of houses and new cars. Last year, car sales fell by 6.8% and the downward trend continued through 2019 with sales slumping 2.4% over the 12 months, despite registrations in December actually rising 3.4% compared with the same month in 2018.
When you look at the breakdown by fuel type, diesel cars were a big turn-off for consumers last year, with demand dropping by more than a fifth (21.8%) compared with the year before.
Yet, despite their greatly reduced share of the new car market, diesel models still resonate with many car buyers — 583,488 “oil burners” were registered in the UK in 2019, accounting for around one in three of all new cars that arrived on British roads last year.
The decline of diesel has come alongside a rise in demand for “alternatively fuelled vehicles” (AFVs). Sales of electric and hybrid cars — now split into plug-in hybrids (PHEV), so-called “self-charging” hybrids (HEV) such as the Toyota Prius and mild hybrids (MHEV), which are petrol and diesel cars with a small electric motor to help reduce fuel consumption — grew last year by 47.9%.
Registrations of pure-electric cars (aka battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs) in 2019 were up an impressive 144% up on the previous year. Still, with only 37,850 registrations, they make up only a small part (1.6%) of the 2.3m+ new cars sold in 2019. This is expected to change dramatically throughout 2020 as a host of new models arrive, and electric cars are predicted to continue to steal market share in the years ahead.
By an overwhelming margin, then, petrol remained the preferred choice for many motorists last year: nearly two-thirds (64.8%) of new cars registered in the UK in 2019 were powered by petrol alone (with no assistance from electric motors). Pure petrol vehicles’ popularity isn’t as healthy as it could be, though — like-for-like registrations over the last 12 months only increased by 2.2%, despite buyers looking for alternatives to diesel.
Top 10 most popular cars in 2019
The Ford Fiesta supermini continues its dominant run as Britain’s most popular new car but with seven car manufacturers represented in the top 10 bestsellers for 2019, and five different brands covering the top six, buyers are certainly not spoilt for choice. Looking at the total number of cars registered since January 1, 2019, here’s the top 10 most popular new cars in the UK:
1 Ford Fiesta
Number of registrations 77,833
Ford’s supermini ended 2019 comfortably as the UK’s best-selling new car, just as it was the year before. The Fiesta sold nearly 20,000 more than the second most popular car and accounted for a third of all Ford’s registrations alone.
Despite getting bigger with each new version, the Fiesta remains a delight to drive, with improvements in interior space and build quality over the old car and a great range of engine options further helping to make it a tempting buy.
2 Volkswagen Golf
Number of registrations 58,994
Consistent popularity has made the Volkswagen Golf one of the UK’s best-selling family hatchbacks, and it was the bestseller overall in December (4,585 registrations), no doubt as dealers heavily discount the current stock before the all-new Golf (reviewed here) arrives in the coming months.
For most of the year it was locked in a close battle with the Ford Focus for best-of-the-rest honours behind the all-conquering Fiesta but came out on top after such a strong finish to 2019.
The Golf is a timeless choice with a high quality interior as well as excellent ride and handling, so it thoroughly deserves its success. The new model is another step up in all areas, so Ford should be worried.
3 Ford Focus
Number of registrations 56,619
Despite a strong start to the year (it ended January runner-up behind the Fiesta), the newish Ford Focus’s popularity waned as 2019 progressed – in December, the Golf rival finished a modest sixth in the monthly charts, behind the upmarket BMW 3 Series. Despite this, the Ford clung on to a top-three finish for new car registrations in 2019.
While retaining its everyman appeal the new Focus has a much more upmarket cabin than the one found in previous generations, while continuing to excel in the areas of handling and driving pleasure. And with good standard equipment levels, it’s no surprise the Focus is still a top 10 contender.
4 Vauxhall Corsa
Number of registrations 54,239
A new Vauxhall Corsa is nearly with us, which could explain why buyers stayed away in December, resulting in an uncharacteristic no-show in top 10 sales charts. But the Fiesta rival remains one of the UK’s favourite new cars. It will be interesting to see how the new model, which is mechanically the same as the new Peugeot 208 and will be available to buy in pure-electric form for the first time, fares in 2020 and beyond.
5 Mercedes-Benz A-class
Number of registrations 53,724
The new Mercedes A-class is really hitting the spot with British buyers: the premium hatch accounts for nearly a third of Mercedes’ sales in the UK, and it has a sizeable lead over rivals including the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3, neither of which appears in the top 10.
With a lush interior, segment-leading tech spec, upmarket image and affordable finance deals, it’s not hard to see why so many motorists are won over.
6 Nissan Qashqai
Number of registrations 52,532
In 2018 the Nissan Qashqai’s popularity appeared to be on the wane as a wave of new rivals entered the crowded compact SUV market. But despite the fresh-faced competition, the Qashqai is still selling incredibly well, ending 2019 in sixth place overall and comfortably ahead of its chief rivals.
7 Ford Kuga
Number of registrations 41,671
It trailed the Nissan Qashqai on registrations across the year but the Ford Kuga actually outsold its rival in December, with its impressive 3,610 registrations putting making it the fourth bestseller last month. The Kuga’s performance is perhaps related to the fact that an all-new version of the family-friendly crossover is now available to order, with customer car deliveries due to begin in the next few months.
8 MINI Hatch
Number of registrations 41,188
The Mini hatch hasn’t always appeared in the monthly charts, though the retro runabout has been consistent enough to finish eighth overall for 2019. Thanks to its impressive 3,985 registrations last month (making it the third bestselling car in December), the MINI has managed to hold onto its seventh place in the chart for the year as a whole. It’s one to watch in 2020, too, with the launch of new variants such as the John Cooper Works GP hot hatch and the plug-in Mini Electric.
9 Volkswagen Polo
Number of registrations 37,453
It’s not giving its Ford Fiesta rival any sleepless nights but the Volkswagen Polo is still one of the UK’s most popular new cars, proving buyers of superminis are increasingly wanting to be seen driving upmarket brands.
Like the Golf, its bigger brother, the Polo is a great all-rounder with efficient engines, good ride quality and arguably the supermini segment’s most impressive interior.
10 Kia Sportage
Number of registrations 34,502
In December the Kia Sportage lost a bit more ground to its chief rivals, though performed admirably well to finish 2019 in 10th place overall. Like the Nissan Qashqai and the Ford Kuga, the Sportage is a well-balanced all-rounder, though the Korean crossover has one big USP over its competitors: an impressive seven-year/ 100,000-miles warranty.