Last year was a tough one for the UK van market. A 7.9% drop in registrations reversed the previous three years of growth, although the total of 239,641 LCVs being registered was still the second best since 2008, and well above 2009’s recessionary low of just 186,386.
But despite the drop, which saw each sector of the market down by 6.0-11.4%, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders, there was still reason to be positive, with the market seemingly on the cusp of a recovery.
“There is still a core underlying demand – you’ve only got to look at what’s happening with used vehicles and people wanting something newer,” says SMMT CV development manager Nigel Base (pictured). “We’re seeing a shift. They can’t quite afford new so they’re buying used, then the prices of used vehicles go up.”
That, says Base, means the gap closes between new and used, making people once more consider a new vehicle rather than nearly new. “There’s a real dilemma in the marketplace – to buy new or used when your van is getting old,” he continues. “I think it’s very difficult to read. Until the general economic climate stabilises, it’s difficult to see what’s going to happen.”
Base says there was an increase in demand for vehicles in the wake of the lengthy economic woes from businesses who had hung onto their vans as long as possible. “The recession has been with us since 2008 and the van fleet was ageing, so at some point users out there realised they had to renew their vehicles, and it’s cheaper to buy new than run elderly vehicles,” says Base.
Ford recorded its 47th consecutive year at the top of the manufacturers’ chart, but there was a surprise below it with VW passing Vauxhall to take second place thanks to it losing less market share. Both were down year-on-year, but Vauxhall dropped more than 20% compared with VW’s 2.4%, nearly all of which occurred during the mid-year change of the old Combo to new. In fact, the top three were all down year-on-year, while the next trio  – Peugeot, Mercedes and Citroen – improved upon their respective 2011 figures despite the declining marketplace. Peugeot climbed two places into the top four on the back of the Partner small van’s good year, although Mercedes’ addition to its line-up in the form of the new Citan small van will have it pushing hard to reclaim that position during 2013.
Renault fell to seventh place and behind its French rivals, Peugeot and Citroen, dropping sales by nearly a quarter, the worst result in the top 10, while Nissan, Toyota and Fiat were all holding formation below it.
Further down, Great Wall began to establish itself in the UK during 2012, with nearly 500 registrations, and Mini’s first few Clubvans were registered before the end of the year to give it a place on the edge of the top 20 at the expense of Ssangyong.
It’s no shock that Ford’s Transit, combined between medium and large van models, dominated sales, although the range will split for 2013 with the launch of the Custom medium-sized model. The Mercedes Sprinter and Vauxhall Vivaro took second and third places, as was the case in 2011, while the Peugeot Partner enjoyed growth in excess of 50% to break into the top five and become the number one light van.
Nearer the bottom of the 25 biggest-selling new LCVs was a first appearance for the Nissan NV200, which is still growing every year, and the Ford Ranger, with the Peugeot Bipper and Fiat Ducato dropping out to make way. Three models – the Mercedes Vito, VW Crafter and Peugeot Boxer – all rose five places, the biggest climbs of all, while heading nine places in the other direction was Renault’s Kangoo, with the French firm hoping a recent facelift will increase sales.
The dominant sector was, as usual, large vans, with those at the 3.5-tonne mark particularly popular. “There is a trend towards heavier vehicles (which is true of trucks as well) because of the operator and driver licence paperwork issues [involved with using vehicles],” says the SMMT’s Base. “The flexibility of a van helps, but there’s definitely a long-term trend towards 3.5 tonnes.”
The large 3.5-tonne vans are benefitting also from the rise in home shopping, gradually replacing the 7.5-tonne truck that was traditionally an urban delivery vehicle of choice. “In reality the payloads aren’t that much different and the flexibility of having a van, particularly in urban areas, is worth sacrificing a little payload for,” says Base. “Even though they may not be as good as a 7.5-tonner, it’s close enough and worth it.”
He also says that, rather than picking the smallest van that will do a job, operators are opting for a 3.5-tonne vehicle rather than a 2.8-tonner: “The difference in operator cost is very little against the extra flexibility. Generally, operators are maximising their bangs for buck. It’s a long-term thing – we’ve seen it slowly over the past 20 years.”
Looking ahead the SMMT is predicting 2013 could see growth of up to 5% in registrations. “When you go to a seminar or show etc. or speak to companies individually, they say ‘it’s okay, although we could do with a bit more business’,” says Base. “On a business level, there is a degree of confidence but it’s not reflected in the figures. The whole industry has shrunk to fit the market and is more readily adjustable and flexible than the car market. As soon as we’ve got a little upturn or stability, everyone’s happy.”
What we won’t see, though, is a return to the heady days of consistently high registrations,
Base feels: “We’re still coming from a very difficult place. I don’t think we’ll ever get back to the 300,000 level, but we’re slowly digging ourselves out.”
He speculates new product such as the Mercedes-Benz Citan and Ford’s Transit Custom,
with Ford also launching the Courier, Transit Connect and large Transit around the end of this year will help. “Perhaps people know the major players are launching new product this year, so maybe some are delaying.”
However it spins out, the used vehicle demand illustrates that there is still a need for vehicles, and if or when that demand and relative lack of supply leads to higher prices, it could be as important in increasing new registrations as the much hoped-for increase in consumer confidence that will come when the economy final turns a corner.