UK electric car sales accelerate in 2021 as wider market stalls

Tesla Model 3 takes lead position as best-seller in December

Tesla’s Model 3 was the top selling electric car in the UK in 2021, with 34,783 cars sold. Reuters
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British sales of electric cars soared in 2021, accounting for one in every four motors sold, but the market as a whole staged a limp recovery from the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

More electric cars were registered in 2021 than in the previous five years, with 191,000 registered, a rise of 75 per cent on the 108,000 sold in 2020, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Meanwhile, the entire market saw 1.65 million new cars sold last year — a rise of just 1 per cent on 2020 and a 28.7 per cent contraction on 2019 figures.

“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,” SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said.

Britain’s car industry was hammered by the pandemic in 2020, with new car sales suffering the biggest fall since the 1940s as Covid-enforced showroom closures took their toll with a decline in sales of 29 per cent on 2019.

However, the expected recovery did not materialise in 2021 as the supply chain crisis saw a global chip shortage that halted manufacturing in factories across the world as semiconductors are vital components in modern cars with up to 3,000 used per vehicle.

The only bright spark in the last year’s figures was the rapid switch to electric transport with Tesla’s Model 3 the top seller in its category, with 34,783 cars sold.

Almost 18 per cent of all new cars registered in 2021 can be plugged in, which is in addition to the 147,246 hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) registered meaning 27.5 per cent of the total market is now electrified in some form.

In December, petrol cars accounted for just 46 per cent of total sales in December, while electric cars took a 26 per cent share — its second-highest level behind the 33 per cent recorded in April 2020 — with Tesla making up 36 per cent of all new electric car purchases with 9,300 sales.

The brand also lead the market overall with a 9 per cent market share in December, compared to Volkswagen’s 8 per cent and Audi’s 7 per cent.

Top 10 best-selling electric vehicles in the UK in 2021 – in pictures

The switch to electric cars will be welcomed by the government, which is banning the sale of petrol and diesel powered cars by 2030 to help the country meet its net zero target by 2050.

However, Mr Hawes criticised the government’s decision to reduce the maximum value of a grant to bring down the cost of an electric car to £1,500 from £2,500.

“It’s a confusing message,” he said. “It’s a massive ambition to get the entire market to move to meet net zero by 2030/2035. Anything that brings into doubt that commitment doesn’t help a consumer who might be wavering.”

The trade body also raised concerns over the number on-street public charging points needed to meet the demand from new electric car owners.

“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,” said Mr Hawes.

Separately, petrol and diesel retailers have been criticised for not passing on wholesale price savings to consumers, according to the nation’s main motoring organisation, the RAC

Prices in the UK ended the year below November’s record-highs, but the drops in wholesale fuel costs in December have not yet been reflected in pump prices.

Retailers are making an average of £0.16 a litre on petrol, instead of £0.06 pence as usual, the group says.

“The 10 pence extra retailers have added to their long-term margin of 6 pence a litre has led to petrol car drivers paying £5 million more a day than they previously would have,” according to RAC fuel spokesperson Simon Williams.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government has done its part.

“I think it’s important that retailers pass on these reductions as well,” he added.

Updated: January 06, 2022, 11:33 AM