THE CAR industry has been under intense pressure in recent years to clean up its act, with increasingly tough measures against exhaust emissions — particularly the nitrogen oxides and particulates produced by diesel cars — shaking up the new car market.
A rapidly changing car market
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
In the last couple of years a new, more realistic emissions test called WLTP further complicated matters, and sales of certain models dropped off a cliff as car makers rushed to get them re-evaluated.
The fallout from that is settling now, though many markets are continuing to pile on the pressure with enforced switch to electric cars. The UK government recently announced that it plans to outlaw sales of new petrol and diesel cars completely in 2035, five years earlier than was originally stated. Even hybrids will be excluded from sale, subject to consultation.
New petrol, diesel and hybrid cars will still be on sale until that time, and for many people, including business users and those who lease cars, they will still make the most sense. And used models powered by fossil fuels (at least in part) will be available even after 2035.
For private buyers, though, there may be worries about residual values (the loss in value over time) of non-electric cars, so we’re likely to see the top 10 bestsellers become increasingly “electrified” in the next few years.
And then there’s Brexit. While the UK is no longer a member of the European Union (EU), there is still uncertainty over what the future holds, as 2020 marks a transition period during which the UK’s future trading and regulations relationship with the EU is agreed.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which represents the UK’s automotive sector, has repeatedly urged the government to pursue as close a relationship with the EU as possible.
In January 2020, the SMMT’s chief executive Mike Hawes said: “Given the uncertainty the sector has experienced, it is essential we re-establish our global competitiveness and that starts with an ambitious free trade agreement with Europe, one that guarantees all automotive products can be bought and sold without tariffs or additional burdens.”
Petrol, diesel, electric and hybrid sales
What it all has meant for motorists is an extra cautious approach when buying their next new car. Last year, car sales fell by 2.4% and the downward trend has continued into 2020, with registrations for January slumping 7.3% when compared with the same month in 2019.
There’s been a very big drop in demand for new diesel cars, with registrations for them diving by more than a third (36%) like-for-like. Plenty of drivers do still see value in the fuel, though, as purely diesel-powered cars accounted for just under one-in-five (19.8%) of the UK’s new car registrations in January 2020.
The decline of diesel has come alongside a rise in demand for “alternatively fuelled vehicles” (AFVs). Sales of hybrid cars — now split into plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), so-called “self-charging” hybrids (HEVs) such as the Toyota Prius and mild hybrids (MHEVs), which are petrol and diesel cars with a small electric motor to help reduce fuel consumption — grew by 98.7%, and like-for-like demand for pure-electric cars (aka battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs) shot up in January by an impressive 203.9%.
However, despite that surge in sales, AFVs still make up the minority of new cars. Of the 149,279 cars sold so far this year, 23,784 (15.9%) have been hybrids, and pure-electric registrations amounted to just 4,054 (2.7%). This is expected to change over the course of 2020, as a host of new electrified cars are due to go on sale in the UK by the end of the year.
Until then, petrol remains the preferred choice by an overwhelming margin: more than three-fifths (61.5%) of all new cars registered in January were powered by petrol alone (with no assistance from electric motors). The writing could be on the wall for pure-petrol power, however, as emissions regulations force at least mild hybridisation by the car companies; like-for-like demand for traditional petrol cars fell by 9.5% last month.
Top 10 most popular cars of 2020
The Ford Fiesta was Britain’s most popular new car in 2019, and the supermini has retained its number one spot in the charts so far in 2020, with the larger Ford Focus following in tow in the runner-up position. Despite Ford’s dominance at the top, the bestsellers list contains a diverse selection of models: seven different brands are represented in the top 10, with cars including superminis, hatchbacks, family SUVs and executive saloons.
Looking at the total number of cars registered since January 1, 2020, here’s the top 10 most popular new cars in the UK:
1 Ford Fiesta
Number of registrations 6,087
Ford’s strong-selling supermini ended 2019 comfortably as the UK’s most popular new car, and the Fiesta has continued its dominant streak into 2020. More than 6,000 examples were registered last month, meaning the Fiesta already has an advantage of 800 registrations over the car in second place.
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 Ford Focus
Number of registrations 5,287
Mirroring the performance of the Fiesta, the Ford Focus has had a very good start to the year; ending January as best-of-the-rest for new car sales. Like its little sibling, the Focus’s 5,200-plus registrations means it has a healthy advantage over the other family hatchbacks further down the list.
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.
3 Nissan Qashqai
Number of registrations 4,608
The Nissan Qashqai’s popularity appeared to be in doubt not so long ago, as a wave of new rivals entered the crowded SUV market. But despite the fresh-faced competition, the Qashqai remains as popular as ever, outselling many of its chief rivals by a comfortable margin.
Last month in particular was a very strong one for the Qashqai. As well as having the highest registration total of any new SUV, the Nissan is also third overall in the year-to-date charts, ahead of other popular cars like the Vauxhall Corsa and Volkswagen Golf.
4 Vauxhall Corsa
Number of registrations 4,373
The Vauxhall Corsa has long been a strong seller in the UK, and the latest version of Vauxhall’s Ford Fiesta rival has picked up where its predecessors left off. While the all-new Corsa didn’t outsell its arch nemesis last month, it has had a very good showing so far, with nearly 4,400 examples finding homes in January.
It will be interesting to see how the Corsa fares against the Fiesta throughout 2020 and beyond — especially as, unlike the Ford, the new Corsa is available in pure-electric form.
5 Volkswagen Golf
Number of registrations 4,027
The Volkswagen Golf has been a consistently strong seller in the UK, so it’s no surprise the hatchback has continued its run as one of Britain’s most popular new cars. 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 all-new version for 2020, which comes in petrol, diesel, mild-hybrid and plug-in hybrid forms, is likely to appeal to a wide variety of buyers, so this is one to watch in 2020. Could it leapfrog the Focus by December?
6 Mercedes-Benz A-Class
Number of registrations 3,214
Mercedes-Benz is doing exceptionally well in the UK, given it’s a premium car maker. A lot of that success is down to its entry-level A-Class model: the upmarket hatchback alone accounted for more than a quarter of Mercedes’ registrations in January.
With a lush interior, segment-leading tech spec, posh image and affordable finance deals, it’s not hard to see why the A-Class has won over so so many British car buyers.
7 Kia Sportage
Number of registrations 2,457
The Kia Sportage was the 10th bestselling car in the UK last year, and the Korean car maker’s Nissan Qashqai rival looks set to improve on that in 2020 if January’s registration figures are anything to go by. Though it still has a way to go before it can usurp the Qashqai, the Sportage’s strong sales last month have made it the UK’s seventh most popular new car for the year so far.
Like the Nissan Qashqai and many other mid-size SUVs, 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.
8 BMW 3 Series
Number of registrations 2,422
Saloons may no longer be as popular with buyers as in the past but the BMW 3 Series’ sales numbers last month show there’s still demand for cars of this type. The executive saloon had the highest number of registrations for any saloon (ahead of its Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class rivals; neither of which appear in the top 10), and was only 35 registrations shy of the Kia Sportage SUV in seventh place.
It helps that the BMW 3 Series is an impressive all-rounder with great handling, lots of tech and an impressive range of engines to suit most buyers’ needs. To get an idea of what the executive car is like to live with, make sure to check out our extended test review of the “Touring” estate version of the BMW 3 Series.
9 Volkswagen Polo
Number of registrations 2,336
It’s not giving its Ford Fiesta or Vauxhall Corsa rivals any sleepless nights at the moment 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 Vauxhall Grandland X
Number of registrations 2,261
Vauxhall’s Corsa isn’t the British brand’s only model that’s struck a chord with car buyers, it seems, as the firm’s Grandland X family SUV rounds out the top 10 bestsellers list for the year so far. Like many cars of this type, the Grandland X is well-equipped, comfy and spacious, and parents will likely be impressed with the Vauxhall’s safety credentials: when the SUV was crash tested in 2017, it was awarded one of the highest child protection scores of any car assessed by Euro NCAP that year. It will also be offered with a plug-in hybrid powertrain later this year, increasing its appeal.