Electric car sales UK: electric cars outsell plug-in hybrids in January 2021

Electric and plug-in hybrid cars enjoyed impressive market-share growth in 2020; the trend looks set to continue in 2021 despite a drop in overall registrations

Vauxhall Corsa-e

According to the first set of figures released in 2021 by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), just 90,249 new cars were registered in January – the slowest start to the car-sales year since 1970. However, despite the overall dip caused by widespread showroom closures in lockdown, sales of electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars are up 7.9% year-on-year, with a market share of 21.3% for these types of vehicles.

In January 2020, 4,054 pure-electric cars were registered, but in January 2021, despite the pandemic, the corresponding figure was 6,260. This 54.4% increase was greater than that for plug-in hybrids (28%) and the polar opposite to petrol and diesel, whose sales were down 50.6% and 62.1% respectively.

However, mild hybrids (MHEVs) seem to be going some way towards replacing purely combustion-powered cars, most likely thanks to manufacturers offering the technology across their ranges. A 40.2% increase for petrol MHEVs (from 6,298 to 8,832 cars) and a 26.5% increase for diesels MHEVs (4,918 to 6,221) was reported. 

For now, however, the largest market share still belongs to purely petrol-powered cars, with a 49.8% share in January 2021. Diesels were next, with 12.3%, followed by MHEV petrols (9.8%) and then, each with a 6.9% share, MHEV diesels and pure-electric cars.

There were no specifically electric cars in the top sellers list for January, although a number of models listed are available with electric or plug-in hybrid drivetrains. These included the Vauxhall Corsa in first place, the Volvo XC40 in fifth, the Mercedes A-Class in sixth, the VW Golf in seventh and the Kia Niro in ninth.

Electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid registrations in 2020

UK new-car registrations dropped to their lowest level since 1992 in 2020. Overall sales figures show a 29.4% decrease in new-car registrations year-on-year, but the good news is that electric and plug-in hybrid cars made up a larger proportion of cars sold than ever before.

Pure-electric sales were up by 185.9% versus 2019, while plug-in hybrid sales were up 91.2%. The total share of the new-car market taken by pure-electric cars in 2020 was 6.6%, with 108,205 electric cars sold; plug-in hybrids had a 4.1% market share, with 66,877 new registrations.

A number of electric models found their way into the list of top sellers in December 2020, which bodes well for the segment going into 2021. The Tesla Model 3 sold strongly through lockdown and was the best-selling car in December, followed by the Volkswagen ID.3 in fourth place.

The Vauxhall Corsa (now available in pure-electric Corsa-e guise) sold strongly all year and came second overall for 2020 – although the bulk of these will have been conventionally powered. Other models in the overall top 10 for 2020 also available with electric or hybrid powertrains include the Mercedes A-Class (fifth) and Volvo XC40 (10th). The Volkswagen Golf (third) is now available as a plug-in hybrid GTE model.

Elsewhere, pure-hybrid cars still saw a rise in sales despite a general move towards plug-in variants by most manufacturers. Total sales were 100,117, versus 98,237 in 2019 – a 12.1% increase. This seems a modest increase when compared to the plug-in hybrid figure, however.

For context, diesel-car registrations fell by a staggering 55% year-on-year, while petrol cars dropped by 39%. However, these figures don't take into account the industry's move to mild-hybrid (MHEV) technology: MHEV diesels saw a 79.6% increase in registrations, while petrol mild-hybrid variants saw a 184.1% increase.  

Despite some brief signs that the UK car market was beginning to recover from coronavirus-enforced shutdowns, car registration numbers overall were down 29.4% by the end of 2020 – that's 680,076 fewer cars than last year.

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