Tesla Model 3 UK delivery event

Tesla Model 3 was second in list of UK's best-selling cars of 2021

Challenges for the industry but electric cars made up more than 11% of the market in 2021

THE LIST of best-selling cars in the UK usually gives us a clear indication of the models that drivers love. It’s not always that simple, though, and the most popular new cars in the UK of 2021 is particularly interesting on that front.

One thing that has always been a major factor in which cars top the list is that some dealer networks are bigger and cannier than others, and manage to shift lots of vehicles with attractive deals and incentives. Vauxhall and Ford have traditionally battled it out at the top of the charts as a result, with affordable hatchbacks such as the Corsa, Fiesta, Astra and Focus.

Not interested in the overview of what happened with cars sales in 2021? Jump straight to the list of the top 10 most popular cars

But times are changing, and drivers are increasingly moving towards not only new bodystyles — crossovers and SUVs are all the rage — but also new types of powertrain: diesel is about as popular as a work colleague with a hacking cough right now, while hybrid and electric cars are increasingly desirable.

The way we buy cars is changing as well: buyers are increasingly turning to online ordering rather than visiting physical dealerships, which means there’s less chance that drivers are encouraged to stick with the same brand and may be more inclined to shop around.

All of the above, along with the fact that the automotive industry was in turmoil again in 2021, due to a perfect storm of issues including a global shortage of semiconductor microchips that limited the supply of new cars, the continued effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the effects of Brexit on trade with Europe, meant that there was an especially large amount of disruption — and a few big surprises.

UK car sales in 2021: the trends

Figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show the total number of new car registrations in 2021 increased by just 1% year-on-year, with 1.65m cars entering the market. It was the second worst year for car sales since 1992.

SMMT annual new car registrations 2005 to 2021

That’s not great when you consider much of 2020 (the worst year since ’92) was spent in lockdown due to the pandemic. In pre-pandemic 2019, a massive 28.7% more cars were sold. 

The SMMT put 2021’s poor performance down to the ongoing impact of Covid-19 combined with the global semiconductor shortage. 

Mike Hawes, SMMT Chief Executive, said: “It’s been another desperately disappointing year for the car industry as Covid continues to cast a pall over any recovery.

“Manufacturers continue to battle myriad challenges, with tougher trading arrangements, accelerating technology shifts and, above all, the global semiconductor shortage which is decimating supply.”

A continued shift away from fossil fuels also marked out 2021. Sales of non-hybrid petrol cars dropped 15.7%,  while non-hybrid diesels plummeted 48.1%. Traditional diesel cars represented just 8.2% of the market last year — half what it was the year before.

That represents both a shift in buyer behaviour, as drivers now recognise the harmful effects of diesel fumes on health, but also the flood of new electrified cars hitting the market.

In December 2021, pure-electric cars represented 25.5% of all cars registered

Most car makers have added some sort of hybrid system to their vehicles, and “mild hybrids” — with an electric motor that offers assistance to the engine during acceleration — are a quick fix to reduce total fleet emissions before pure-electric models are brought to market. In 2021, 98,753 mild-hybrid diesels and 198,025 mild-hybrid petrols were registered in the UK, up 62% and 66.2% year-on-year respectively.

UK car sales by fuel type, 2021 vs 2020

The big winners last year, however, were pure-electric cars (what the SMMT calls battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). Some 190,727 pure-electric cars were sold in 2021, up 76.3% on the year before and representing a 11.6% of the total market — nearly double its share in 2020.

In fact, in December 2021, pure-electric cars represented 25.5% of all cars registered in the UK, which suggests 2022 will be another boom year for plug-in cars.

“Despite the challenges [for the industry in 2021], the undeniable bright spot is the growth in electric car uptake,” said Hawes. “A record-breaking year for the cleanest, greenest vehicles is testament to the investment made by the industry over the past decade and the inherent attractiveness of the technology.

“The models are there, with two of every five new car models now able to be plugged in, drivers have the widest choice ever and industry is working hard to overcome Covid-related supply constraints.”

Hawes warned, however, that if the government really wants drivers to take up electric motoring, it needs to do a u-turn on cuts to incentives, including reducing the plug-in car grant from £2,500 to £1,500 off the list price of a new electric car.

“The biggest obstacle to our shared net zero ambitions is not product availability … but cost and charging infrastructure,” he said. “Recent cuts to incentives and home charging grants should be reversed and we need to boost the roll out of public on-street charging with mandated targets, providing every driver, wherever they live, with the assurance they can charge where they want and when they want.”

The best-selling cars of 2021

But what were the most popular car models of 2021? Here is the official list of top 10 best-selling vehicles in the UK, according to the SMMT.

1. Vauxhall Corsa

Number of registrations 40,914

The top 10 most popular cars in the UK 2021

Vauxhall’s supermini relaunched in 2020 with handsome new looks and a range of powertrain options, including a pure-electric variant packing a competitive 208-mile range.

The refresh seems to have done the trick, and the Corsa stormed to the top of the table in 2021, well ahead of the Ford Fiesta — the UK’s most popular car for the last few years.

The Corsa nearly usurped the Fiesta in 2020 but a strong start to the year meant that Ford’s ever-popular supermini just pipped the Vauxhall to the post. But 2021 was finally the Griffin’s year while the Fiesta had a disastrous second half of the year, and amazingly has slipped out of the top 10 completely.

Ford has been hampered by supply issues but a spokesperson told us a new focus on vans, due to a rise in online shopping and deliveries, as well as the success of the Puma and Kuga PHEV models, means that Fiesta is getting less attention internally. But given the Corsa’s success, could Ford be missing a trick in not bringing an electric version of the Fiesta to market asap?

2. Tesla Model 3

Number of registrations 34,783

Sunday Times Driving picks the 10 best electric cars

Well, here’s a shock. At the end of November, the Tesla Model 3 wasn’t even in the top 10 best sellers list, yet here it is in second place for the most registrations of 2021 after toping the charts in December.

The fact that the pure-electric saloon has been popping in and out of the list is most likely the result of infrequent bulk shipments arriving on our shores and all being registered at once.

It’s a worthy result, though, as the Model 3 has class-leading technology, excellent range per charge, a game-changing interior and impressive performance and handling characteristics. Buyers also benefit from the Tesla Supercharger network, which is second to none.

Now the Model 3-based Model Y crossover is beginning to arrive in the UK, it will be fascinating to see how well that sells in 2022.

3. Mini Hatch

Number of registrations 31,792

2020 MINI Cooper SE: price, on sale date, electric range and info

Another model with a pure-electric variant, after a refresh last year the Mini Hatch was the second best-selling car in the UK in October and December, and topped the charts in November.

There’s a lot of appeal in the Mini thanks to its premium feel coupled with retro styling that has evolved in such a way that it still looks good more than 20 years on from the first “New Mini”. The handling and driving experience are as engaging as ever too.

Aside from the electric model, buyers will find plenty of choice in the Mini Hatch range from the sensible and affordable Mini One right up to the hooligan John Cooper Works models. There are also three- and five-door versions. The Mini is still among the best of British and a keen rival for German cars such as the Audi A1 and Volkswagen Polo

4. Mercedes-Benz A Class

Number of registrations 30,710

Mercedes-Benz A Class

The Mercedes-Benz A Class might be from a premium car maker but the hatchback is now a mainstay of the top 10 best-selling cars list, and moved up from fifth place overall in 2020 to fourth in 2021.

A runaway success for Mercedes, the A Class earned its top four spot last year thanks to class-leading interior and refinement, as well an abundance of choice: on top of a couple of hot hatch versions in the Mercedes-AMG A35 and A45, there is also a saloon version of the car.

Helping sales, a range of tempting deals mean that the A Class can also put the “a” in “affordable”.

5. Volkswagen Polo

Number of registrations 30,634

2019 Volkswagen Polo

Order books for the refreshed Polo opened in November, with deliveries starting around now, which could be why Volkswagen dealers were desperate to shift so much of the existing stock towards the end of 2021. Some 3,167 were registered in October, making it the best-selling car of the month — not for the first time in 2021.

Sales fell off in November and December, though, as showrooms began to take in the new model. However, its excellent sales in previous months meant that the Polo outsold the evergreen Golf over the course of 2021.

The sixth-generation Polo is a good car, too, with excellent road manners and comfort, class-leading tech and good use of space. There’s also an upmarket Polo R-Line for those who want extra gadgets and refinement, plus a sparky Polo GTI for those who find the regular model doesn’t quite light their fire. Will the updated model prove as popular in 2022?

6. Volkswagen Golf

Number of registrations 30,240

Volkswagen Golf

The VW Golf has had a solid performance in 2021, with more than 30,000 registrations. It’s unclear how badly supply issues hampered its sales, though, and looking at the success of the Mercedes A Class you may suspect the model, which was all-new in 2020, might have performed a little better.

After all, what would this list be without the presence of a Golf? In its 50 years on sale, the German hatchback has become the model against which every other is judged.

The Golf 8 range was expanded last year with the estate, GTI and superhot Golf R. From the entry-level model to the range-topper, there are a huge number of trim levels and engine choices.

Having such a number of variants means that there’s something bearing the Golf name for nearly everyone, but with the pure-electric VW ID.3 now on sale, how well the Golf performs in 2022 will be key to the model’s long-term survival.

7. Nissan Qashqai

Number of registrations 29,920

Nissan Qashqai

Nissan didn’t have the start to the year it wanted for its compact SUV, finding itself stuck behind South Korean rival the Kia Sportage, but it did well in the second quarter of the year as dealers looked to clear existing stock ahead of the arrival of an all-new model.

With the new model now on the roads, it has been a solid top 10 seller for the last few months. It’s easy to see why: new Qashqai comes with a hybrid variant, clever technology, a fresher design and more upmarket interior, and we liked it enough to name it our Small SUV / Crossover of the Year 2021.

8. Ford Puma

Number of registrations 28,697

Ford Puma

The motoring world let out a collective groan of exasperation when it was announced that Ford would be reviving the Puma name — associated with the beloved, sporty 1990s coupé — as a crossover SUV. However, the car maker has proved the naysayers wrong by delivering what is one of the best-handling and most practical cars in its class.

In his review of the car, Jeremy Clarkson, who loved the washable boot well (known as the “megabox”), said that it seemed to be designed by “an actual person who leads an actual life”. And for those who like to put a little spice in their SUV, there’s an ST version, too.

Its excellent critical reception has translated to superb sales figures, and the Puma ended up outselling the Fiesta supermini in 2021, which is partly explained by supply disruption but is pretty extraordinary all the same, as the Fiesta has been the UK’s best-selling car for the last few years.

9. Kia Sportage

Number of registrations 27,611

Kia Sportage

The Kia Sportage didn’t even make the top 10 in 2020 so it was something of a surprise when it found itself as the UK’s second best-selling model at the beginning of 2021.

It received something of a makeover in 2020 and could be ordered in a range of variants: two or four-wheel drive, a manual or automatic gearbox, and petrol or diesel mild hybrid.

A new Sportage is due in the first first of 2022, which means good deals on the old model were likely at the end of 2021. And, as with any Kia, an unbeatable seven-year warranty makes it a sensible purchase.

It faced some stiff competition, though, not least from the ubiquitous Nissan Qashqai, which was re-launched mid-way through 2021.

10. Toyota Yaris

Number of registrations 27,415

2020 Toyota Yaris Hybrid

Toyota’s supermini has always done pretty well but it received a shot in the arm last year, with a radically and sporty styling refresh that seems to have hit the spot with buyers.

There’s also the hugely desirable Toyota GR Yaris hot hatch, which Clarkson named his Sunday Times Car of the Year 2021.

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