Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, described 2021 as ‘desperately disappointing’ for the UK new car market, with registrations seeing just 1% growth on a pandemic-torn 2020.

The statistics revealed that 1.65m new cars entered the UK market during the year – 28.7% down on pre-pandemic 2019, representing the second worst year since 1992.

2021 however did represent the most successful year in history for electric vehicle uptake as more battery electric vehicles (BEVs) were registered than over the previous five years combined Some 190,727 new BEVs joined Britain’s roads, along with 114,554 plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), meaning 18.5% of all new cars registered in 2021 can be plugged in.

This is in addition to the 147,246 hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) registered which took a further 8.9% market, meaning 27.5% of the total market is now electrified in some form.

The UK finished 2021 as the third largest European market for new car registrations but the second largest by volume for plug-in vehicles and the second largest for BEVs. It is only in ninth position overall, however, in Europe for BEVs by market share, underlining the progress still to be made, despite the UK having among the most ambitious targets of all major markets with the end of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars scheduled for 2030.

Petrol-powered vehicles, including mild hybrids (MHEVs), remain Britain’s most popular powertrain, accounting for 58.3% of all new cars registered in 2021, with diesel-powered cars including MHEVs making up 14.2% of the market, followed by BEVs at 11.6%, HEVs at 8.9% and PHEVs at 7.0%.

Looking ahead, the latest forecast for 2022 – published in October, before the rise of the Omicron variant – is for 1.96 million new car registrations.

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.

“Despite the challenges, the undeniable bright spot is the growth in electric car uptake. 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 the industry is working hard to overcome Covid-related supply constraints.

“The biggest obstacle to our shared net-zero ambitions is not product availability, however, but the cost and charging infrastructure. 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.”

Industry reaction

Sean Kemple, managing director of Close Brothers Motor Finance, said: “Despite waning optimism after such a turbulent and difficult year, the outlook for 2022 is overarchingly positive. When supply issues ease, the used car market will stabilise, and the new car market will be more equipped to meet strong levels of demand. The electric vehicle market share will likely continue to accelerate throughout the year as more EV models are brought to market. However, the success story of alternative fuelled vehicles (AFVs) will depend on how far the government supports the development of infrastructure that is so desperately needed to encourage consumers towards taking the leap.”

Meryem Brassington, electrification propositions lead at Lex Autolease, said: “The UK took a giant step along its electrification journey last year, with more than 190,000 new electric vehicles registered, accounting for 12% of the market – a major boost as we work towards net zero.

“Accelerating electric vehicle adoption must remain at the top of the industry’s priorities if we’re serious about leading the EV charge. Continued fiscal support has been the driving factor behind increased adoption levels to date but we cannot afford to let this slip. We’ve already seen reductions to the Plug-in Car Grant and any future tax or grant changes must be gradual and proportional until we begin to see cost parity between some ICE and EV models.”

Karen Hilton, chief commercial officer at heycar, said: “2021 was a year of stark contrasts for the industry: While new car supply plummeted, prices for used vehicles soared.

“Traditional set-piece events like the new plate change were conspicuous by their absence and will be so again this March. It means in many ways 2021 for dealers can be epitomised by a return to back-to-basics retailing. The result is real structural change in a sector that goes into 2022 leaner and fitter than it has been for a number of years.”

James Fairclough, chief executive of AA Cars, said: “With car factories in other countries similarly hit by the global shortage of semiconductors, the supply of new vehicles for sale may not catch up with buyer demand for several months to come. That’s why thousands of would-be new car buyers are focusing on the second-hand market instead, where availability is significantly better.”

Jamie Hamilton, automotive director and head of electric vehicles at Deloitte, said: “Deloitte’s data this week highlights that UK consumers still identify driving range, and a lack of public charging infrastructure among the main barriers to purchasing an EV.

“In reality, driving range is becoming less of an issue for EVs. Just this week we saw a number of new models and prototypes unveiled, pushing the boundaries of what a battery is capable of. However, the perceived lack of public charging infrastructure remains a potential issue, with significant investment required to avoid an imbalance whereby EVs are only a realistic option for consumers with off-street parking. Consumers also expressed concern over the perceived price premium attached to EVs at a time when subsidies are being reduced.”