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 many car makers — including Toyota, Kia, Volvo and Porsche — last year set a date for abandoning such engines altogether.
A change in the way car emissions are tested was brought in last year. 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), and almost every new car on sale had to be re-tested, causing delays in delivery to customers/ It also continues to cause 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 next month 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 has all 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 trend has continued into the New Year, with total vehicle registrations in January dipping 1.6% on the same period last year.
Diesel cars accounted for the majority of the decline, of course: like-for-like sales were down 20.8% last month.
In contrast, registrations of “alternatively fuelled vehicles” (which include pure-electric, hydrogen fuel cell and hybrid cars) increased by 26.3%. Although their market share still remains relatively small, it grew from 5.3% to 6.8% in January compared witht he same month in 2018.
Petrol power continued its triumphant return as fuel of choice, though, with the 103,176 registrations accounting for over two thirds (64.1%) of new car demand last month.
Top 10 most popular cars in January 2019
The decline in car sales wasn’t the only thing that remained consistent in January: the most popular cars were generally the same too, with all but two of the vehicles from 2018’s overall top 10 best-sellers featuring in last month’s top 10.
1 Ford Fiesta
Number of registrations 5,399
The Ford Fiesta ended 2018 comfortably as the UK’s best-selling new car, and the supermini maintained that popularity in the first month of 2019. 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 the Blue Oval’s best-selling offering a tempting buy.
2 Ford Focus
Number of registrations 4,397
It was a Blue Oval one-two in last month’s sales charts, as the Ford Focus was the runner-up in the UK’s best-sellers list for January. Like the Fiesta, the Focus’ big USP is that it’s one of the best cars in this class to drive, and it backs up the behind-the-wheel fun with an impressive tech spec, a more upmarket interior and a wide range of engines.
3 Nissan Qashqai
Number of registrations 4,270
The Nissan Qashqai has long been popular with British families, but even we were surprised to see the SUV this high up the list for January, as its popularity appeared to be on the wane as a wave of new rivals recently entered the crowded compact SUV market. Even more impressively, the recently-updated Qashqai wasn’t too far away from the second-placed Ford Focus, finishing the month just 127 units behind the five-door hatchback; proof that buyers are increasingly enticed by cars with a raised ride height and spacious interior (and, no doubt, strong forecourt incentives).
4 Volkswagen Golf
Number of registrations 3,930
It’s slumped a wee bit in comparison with its runner-up spot in 2018, but the Volkswagen Golf still sold well in January, with its 3,390 registrations last month ensuring it remains one of the country’s most popular new cars. With an all-new Golf due to go on sale soon, it will be interesting to see how the current car fares before it’s eventually replaced.
5 Mercedes-Benz A-class
Number of registrations 3,798
By some margin, the Mercedes A-class is the German car maker’s most popular model in the UK; of the 12,249 vehicles it sold last month, almost one-in-three were examples of the premium hatchback. With a plush interior, segment-leading tech spec, upmarket image and affordable finance deals, it’s not hard to see why so many British motorists are won over.
6 Vauxhall Corsa
Number of registrations 3,097
The current Vauxhall Corsa is in the twilight months of its life cycle, with a brand new version due to go on sale before the end of the year. Despite this, the supermini is still a strong seller in the UK, as a whisker over 3,000 examples found homes last month.
7 Kia Sportage
Number of registrations 3,063
Having ended the year as the UK’s 10th best-selling car last year, the Kia Sportage has risen back up the charts to finish seventh in January. The Nissan Qashqai-rivalling crossover is better than ever, with its mid-life facelift in 2018 adding to more efficient engines, an upgraded interior and more safety and convenience tech, such as adaptive cruise control.
8 Volkswagen Polo
Number of registrations 2,963
Though it wasn’t too much of a threat to the Ford Fiesta last month, the Volkswagen Polo ended January as one of the UK’s most popular cars; just 135 units shy of the sixth-placed Vauxhall Corsa. Like the Golf, its bigger brother, the VW Polo is a great all-rounder, with efficient engines, good ride quality, excellent build quality and arguably the supermini segment’s most impressive interior.
9 Toyota Yaris
Number of registrations 2,821
There tends to be a surprise car in the UK monthly sales charts, and January’s more unexpected entry was the Toyota Yaris supermini, which doesn’t normally feature in the top 10. It’ll be interesting to see if the Yaris’ strong performance last month is down to it being the only car of its class currently available with a hybrid powertrain.
10 Mercedes-Benz C-class
Number of registrations 2,606
Saloons might not be as popular as they once were, but the Mercedes C-class’ presence in the top 10 shows there’s still life in them yet — especially when they’re as upmarket inside and out as this.