According to new data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the number of new company cars registered to fleet and business was up 28.3% last month when compared to March 2020.

157,114 new cars were registered to fleet and business in March, an increase of 34,686 vehicles in March 2020.

Fleet and business registrations accounted for 55.3% market share in the month. Overall, there were 283,964 new car registrations, including private sales, an 11.5% increase on the 254,684 vehicles registered in March 2020.

However, new car registrations are still 6.4% down on where they were after the first three months of 2020.

Compared to 255,567 vehicles registered in the first quarter of 2020, so far 239,349 new company cars have been registered to fleet and business in 2021.

Looking at overall new car sales, the SMMT says that 2021 has seen 58,032 fewer cars registered compared to January to March last year, equivalent to a loss of £1.8 billion in turnover during the first quarter.

Of course, the global pandemic’s impact has been far reaching. If the sector were to return to pre-pandemic levels, approximately 8,300 new cars would need to be registered every single trading day for the rest of the year. At present, current levels are closer to 5,600 a day.

Retail consumer demand fell by 4.1% compared to March 2020 due to closed showrooms. Fleet registrations are currently driving the new car market.

New technologies continue to be of interest. Plug-in vehicle demand has reached its highest ever volume. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) took a combined market share of 13.9%, up from 7.3% last year.

Registrations of BEVs increased by 88.2% to 22,003 units, while PHEVs rose by 152.2% to 17,330. Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) also rose 42.0% to reach 21,599 registrations.

Commenting on the findings, Mike Hawes, SMMT’s chief executive, said:

“The past year has been the toughest in modern history and the automotive sector has, like many others, been hit hard. However, with showrooms opening in less than a week, there is optimism that consumer confidence – and hence the market – will return.

“We know we will see record breaking growth next month given April 2020 was a washout, but a strong and sustainable market is possible if customers are attracted to the choice and competitive offer the industry is able to provide within the safest of showroom environments.”

Hawes also mentioned a need for a “comprehensive charging infrastructure” to convince more retail consumers to make the switch.

Ashley Barnett, head of consultancy at Lex Autolease, worries that these figures point to a drop in the rate at which newer and cleaner cars are joining the UK’s roads:

“In the 12 months to March 2017, there were 2.7m new car registrations, compared to just 1.5m registered over the last year. This shortfall highlights that more than one million cars on today’s roads are older and less efficient, posing a potential roadblock in the ongoing work to achieve net-zero.

“Despite this, the growth in EVs continues to show no signs of slowing down, with registrations up 88% compared to this time last year.

“While the progress is reassuring, it should be noted that EV adoption levels are still in their infancy when compared to the whole of market and there is a need for continued fiscal support to encourage widespread uptake.”

Regarding the Government’s recent decision to cut the plug-in car grant, he added:

“While entry level models from many manufacturers will continue to qualify for a subsidy, more expensive vehicles – which are likely to have a bigger battery and longer range – are no longer eligible,” he added. “We’ll no doubt see the impact of this unfold over the coming months.

“Government departments and industry bodies need to work together to maximise the opportunities to encourage EV uptake and reassure manufacturers that the UK is leading the EV charge. Now is the time for sustained investment as we accelerate along the road to zero.”