In a sign of returning confidence that, hopefully, will not be shattered by the wider economic issues that have blighted the early part of 2012, the UK light commercial vehicle market was up by 16.7% in 2011, coming off the 19.6% increase enjoyed in 2010.
But 2011’s final registration figure of 260,153 light commercial vehicles under 3.5t, according to the official figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, was still well below 2008’s 289,463, which in turn couldn’t match the regular breaching of 300,000-plus in the years before it. So while progress is good, the depths plunged in 2009’s sales volumes mean there’s still a distance to go before any sense of normality returns.
Volume aside, there is a sense of familiarity in other areas. For example, Ford once more topped the respective manufacturer and model sales charts, with the Transit enjoying another year of utter dominance. Ford is now just four years away from celebrating half a century at the top of the LCV sales chart, while the Transit has been the market’s top model since it was launched in 1965.
Ford’s market share increased by 0.3 percentage points, taking it to 27.0%, which was more than that of the second and third-placed brands – Vauxhall and VW – combined. Those two were separated by 1798 units, 91 more than last year, while just 167 sales divided Mercedes, Renault and Peugeot in fourth to sixth places, the latter two both hopping over French rival Citroen. Mercedes and Citroen  were the only two brands to decrease sales year-on-year in a market that was up 16.7%, with Nissan and Hyundai enjoying the strongest growth of 74% each. That took Nissan above Toyota, Fiat and Mitsubishi into the top eight van brands, and that position should be cemented this year as it didn’t include many NV400s due to the new large van only arriving at the very back end of 2011. The growth was mainly down to the Navara pick-up’s 87% increase, although that still only made it the UK’s third-favourite pick-up.
Two brands that registered zero light commercials last year where the now defunct British van brand LDV, and Mazda, which registered 66 pick-ups in 2010 but none last year, though should return to the UK pick-up market in 2012 with its version of the Ford Ranger, the BT.
Behind the Transit, Mercedes’ Sprinter retained best-of-the-rest status, with Vauxhall’s Vivaro jumping three places to third in front of the VW Caddy, which ranked higher than its big brother the Transporter.
Both the Toyota Hilux and Nissan’s Navara enjoyed a good year, acting as prime examples of the growing pick-up market, which was the most-improved sector in 2011 with a 34.1% growth. Panel van growth came at the larger end of the market, with sub-2t vans only up 2.7%, while medium vans grew by 23.2%, and the largest area of the market – vans between 2.5t-3.5t headed towards the 150,000-unit mark after a 17.2% increase last year.
Changes in the way vehicles are sourced, funded and used have helped the market’s recovery in sales volume, according to the SMMT’s chief executive Paul Everitt. “There have been some shifts in the market – more of it has moved to contracted terms and is looking at regular renewal of vehicles,” explains Everitt. “There was more user-chooser and smaller business, and now with the likes of home-delivery companies we’re seeing more vans in recognisable larger fleets.”
Everitt says there’s also evidence of people moving down into 3.5t vans to get below the level where legislation is an issue.
Looking to the future, Everitt says it’s tough to predict where the market might end up because of wider issues such as the Eurozone crisis. “When people look at the overall economy they are anxious, but when they look at themselves and their business they are a bit more positive, so it depends on which one of those wins out,” he says. “We could see more activity in the car and van market or people may decide to hold tight. There is an increasing split between how people perceive their own opportunities versus what they think of the general economic outlook.
“They think they are doing OK, but the general mood and media narrative is how bad things are or could get, and that has an impact on people’s willingness to make new purchases,” he concludes.