2020 new car sales revealed: who were the winners and losers?

It's been a tough year for the UK's new car market, but a rapid rise in demand for electric and plug-in hybrid cars and a switch to online selling means it's not all bad news...


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What Car? team

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Fewer new cars were sold in the UK during 2020 than in any year before 1992, new figures have revealed, showing the extent to which the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has stunted the new car market.

In total, 1.63 million new cars left showrooms in the previous twelve months, down by more than 29% compared with 2019’s figures. Of the cars which did leave showrooms, the vast majority were powered by petrol, with just one in five featuring a diesel engine. In fact, diesel cars had the smallest share of the new car market since 2001.

The UK's fleet car market was also hit hard, with many businesses scaling back or cancelling their orders for new cars, resulting in more than 31% fewer cars being sold to companies. The decline in new car sales is understood to have cost the UK government around £1.9 billion in lost tax revenue.

In December alone, almost 11% fewer cars were sold than in the same month in 2019, with just 132,682 new cars leaving showrooms. Of those, the most popular car was the all-electric Tesla Model 3.

In more positive news, the number of people choosing either a plug-in hybrid or fully electric car grew sharply in 2020, despite lockdown restrictions causing dealerships to operate at reduced capacity for much of the year. Indeed, it has been a record year for sales of plug-in cars, with more than one-in-10 new cars sold in 2020 being able to be plugged in. This figure will need to grow substantially ahead of the government’s planned ban of almost all non fully electric cars in 2030.

Mercedes EQC charging

Online selling has surged in the past year, with dealers using platforms such as our own New Car Buying service to reach potential customers at home. Indeed, the pandemic has changed some attitudes among car buyers, with a recent What Car? Poll showing that 28% would now be comfortable buying their next car entirely online, compared with just 16% in 2019. Of those who said they would be prepared to buy entirely online, the biggest deciding factors were the fact that they already bought most other goods through the internet, not having to deal with sales executives, and having more control over haggling a final price.

Additionally, a further 35% would be happy to view a car through a virtual tour, rather than stepping into a showroom, before deciding on a purchase.

During the current England lockdown, as previously, dealerships can continue to operate “click and collect” services.

So which were the most popular cars in 2020? Below we count down the top 10 from a most extraordinary year.

10

Volvo XC40

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£25,440

RRP from £25,440 to £60,005

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Volvo's Family SUV is a former What Car? Car of the Year and remains one of the very best options in its class. It's good to drive, spacious inside for both people and luggage, and has a well-built interior.

2020 sales 25,023

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Pros

  • Stylish and high-quality interior
  • Comfortable ride on most versions
  • Comprehensive safety kit

Cons

  • Lacks the rear seat flexibility of some rivals
  • Fiddly infotainment system
  • Road noise on the motorway
9

Ford Puma

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£20,505

RRP from £22,030 to £31,365

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The Puma isn't just our reigning champion in the small SUV market, it's one the best cars you can buy in any class. Yes, the Puma is our current Car of the Year, thanks to an alluring mix of practicality and low running costs, combined with an engaging driving style.

2020 sales 26,294

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Pros

  • Great fun to drive
  • Remarkable blend of performance and fuel economy
  • Big and cleverly designed boot

Cons

  • Rear space is adequate rather than outstanding
  • Visibility could be better
  • Volkswagen T-Roc is more comfortable and quieter
8

Volkswagen Polo

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£16,068

RRP from £17,125 to £21,955

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Meet a small car which feels decidely premium inside. Indeed, generous interior space, premium materials and comfort and just a few things which we love about the current Volkswagen Polo. It's quiet on the move, too, although a Ford Fiesta is more fun to drive.

2020 sales 26,965

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Pros

  • Comfortable ride
  • Generous interior space
  • Quiet on the move

Cons

  • Ford Fiesta is more fun to drive
  • Gutless entry-level petrol
  • Standard safety kit could be better
7

Mini hatchback

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£15,617

RRP from £16,400 to £37,000

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The Mini hatchback is an enduring icon in the small car market, and marries cutesy looks with an engaging drive. Our recommended 1.5-litre petrol engine makes for peppy performance around town, while the number of optional packs on offer gives owners plenty of scope for personalisation.

2020 sales 31,233

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Pros

  • The classiest small car interior
  • Low running costs
  • Strong resale values

Cons

  • Ride is a bit firm
  • Not as safe as rivals
  • Only has two rear seats
6

Nissan Qashqai

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£21,978

RRP from £23,550 to £30,070

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It may be one of the older entrants into the family SUV class, but that doesn't stop the Qashqai shifting in big numbers. It's good to drive, relatively practical and is usually available with decent discounts, too. An all-new version is coming later this year.

2020 sales 33,972

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Pros

  • Big discounts
  • Quiet and smooth 1.3 petrol and 1.5 diesel engines
  • Surefooted handling and easy to drive

Cons

  • Top-end versions are very pricey
  • Ride comfort isn't great on 18in and 19in wheels
  • Reliability is a concern
5

Mercedes A-Class

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£22,652

RRP from £24,095 to £57,195

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The A-Class is every inch the premium family hatchback, from its stunning interior to its comfortable ride. It's usually an expensive choice, but big discounts are available through our New Car Buying service

2020 sales 37,608

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Pros

  • Strong safety rating
  • Feature-packed infotainment system
  • Good to drive and very comfortable

Cons

  • Not cheap to buy outright or on finance
  • Restrictive and pricey option packs
  • Poor reliability record
4

Ford Focus

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£20,453

RRP from £22,210 to £34,710

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If you're looking for a family hatchback that's also great to drive, the Focus should be on your shortlist. With sharp handling and a range of peppy engines, it's capable of putting a big smile on your face, while its quiet cruising manners and roomy rear seats make it a sensible choice, too.

2020 sales 39,372

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Pros

  • Great handling
  • Well equipped
  • Roomy rear seats

Cons

  • Not that cheap to buy
  • Low-rent interior
  • Skoda Octavia has a much bigger boot
3

Volkswagen Golf

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£21,893

RRP from £23,355 to £39,270

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The arrival of a new Volkswagen Golf is always big news, and comes with big expectations, too. Fortunately, this latest version remains highly recommendable, with a comfortable ride, tidy handling and a strong range of engines.

2020 sales 43,109

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Pros

  • Exceedingly comfortable ride with adaptive suspension
  • Tidy handling
  • Strong and frugal 1.5 TSI 150 engine

Cons

  • Frustratingly fiddly infotainment system is full of software bugs
  • Interior quality could be better
  • There are more spacious rivals
2

Vauxhall Corsa

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£15,548

RRP from £16,440 to £33,895

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There are better all-rounders in the small car market, but it's still easy to see the appeal of the Corsa: it's cheap to run, well equipped and you can choose from a wide variety of power options (including a fully electric version).

2020 sales 46,439

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Pros

  • Well equipped
  • Decent boot
  • Efficient engines

Cons

  • Laggy and confusing infotainment system
  • Below-par safety rating
  • Poor resale values
1

Ford Fiesta

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£15,411

RRP from £16,640 to £28,770

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The Ford Fiesta slumped down the sales charts in the last months for 2020, but still ended up leading this chart for the year overall. It's a cracking small car that's superb to drive and won't cost you much to run.

2020 sales 49,174

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Pros

  • Brilliant to drive
  • Punchy Ecoboost engines, especially the Hybrid versions
  • Good fuel economy and CO2 emissions

Cons

  • Some rivals are better value
  • Decent but not class-leading practicality
  • Important safety kit not standard
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