The best and worst selling cars of 2020 | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

15th January 2021
Gary Axon

Phew, 2020! What a year! To say that 2020 was an exceptionally tough and testing year for all, including the global motor industry, would be a huge understatement. It was a year like no other, best forgotten by most vehicle makers and new car buyers, with an understandable global decline in new car sales overall of 14.2 per cent.


In the UK, total new car sales in 2020 fell by a more sizeable 29.4 per cent, resulting in £20.4 billion in lost turnover. Last year’s car market was down by 680,076 units on 2019 to 1.63 million new cars, the lowest level since 1992, with the largest British market decline since 1943, when vehicle production had all but switched over to munitions manufacture during World War II.

One very welcome nugget of good news for the beleaguered British motor trade was a strong 186 per cent increase in the sales of 108,205 new battery electric vehicles (BEVs), accounting for 6.6 per cent of total sales, with a 91.2 per cent growth in plug-in hybrid (PHEV) registrations too at 66,877 examples.

These sales increases were inevitable, given the UK Government’s surprise announcement last year to pull forward the sales ban of all brand new internal combustion engined (ICE) petrol and diesel passenger cars to a worryingly close 2030. It will be fascinating to observe how the motor industry reacts to this very short notice and looming deadline over the coming years, and I really fear for some of the smaller specialist British car makers such as Caterham and Ariel.

In view of this surprising (and ill-considered?) pull-forward announcement, predictably, sales of traditional ICE-powered passenger car sales dropped substantially in 2020, with diesel sales falling by a huge 55 per cent, to just 262,772 units. Petrol cars remained the UK’s mainstream (for now) however, accounting for 55.4 per cent of all UK total new car registrations last year, but still reducing, down to under 1 million examples last year at just 903,961 units.


UK-wide lockdowns caused by the COVID-10 pandemic saw the closure of new car showrooms for a number of weeks during 2020 (as now in early 2021), this action taking its inevitable toll on new car sales and deliveries. It also set a new trend in the way many Brits now choose and buy new cars, configuring and ordering them online, with video walk-arounds of new products becoming commonplace, and contactless home delivery from the back of a truck growing in popularity.

Last year the sale of new cars into the private sector fell by almost 27 per cent (resulting in a £1.9 billion loss of VAT revenue to the Chancellor), with company car fleet sales reducing by over 31 per cent and business registrations down by 43.3 per cent, the uncertainty over Brexit also knocking consumer confidence and new car buying decisions, in addition to the on-going pandemic challenges and future personal mobility question marks.

With low-emission BEV and PHEV sales now accounting for around one in every ten new cars sales, models such as the all-electric Tesla Model 3 and recent Volkswagen ID.3 became unexpected entrants into the UK’s top ten best-selling new cars list during 2020.

Although challenged like never before, the ubiquitous Ford Fiesta remained Britain’s best-selling new car once again last year, as it has done for decades, although its narrow 2,681-unit lead was closer than ever before by the latest Vauxhall Corsa, placed in second place. The third sales podium place went to the Volkswagen Golf, which finished last year 21,720 units down on 2019 at 43,109 examples.

Away from the top three podium positions, the Ford Focus ended 2020 in fourth place, with the Mercedes-Benz A-Class coming in at fifth, followed by the Nissan Qashqai (down from fourth in 2019). The Mini, VW Polo, Ford Puma and Volvo XC40 as the UK’s tenth most popular new car in 2020.


BEVs, PHEVs, specialist sports and luxury SUVs, along with the now-mainstream German brands (VW, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi), plus MG and Toyota, were the only causes for celebration last year, with the sales of non-premium large family cars, MPVs and French and Italian makes all experiencing worrying declines in 2020.

On a global basis, the UK was one of the worst hit new car markets in 2020 with the 29.4 per cent market decline out-pacing the overall 14.2 per cent drop experienced worldwide. Markets such as the USA and Australia reflected the 14 per cent new car market reduction, with France overtaking Britain for the first time as Europe’s second biggest new car market (after Germany), despite a 25 per cent sales drop. Germany itself witnessed a 19 per cent sales fall, with Italy down 28 per cent, Spain minus 31 per cent and Belgium falling 21.5 per cent. Further afield, Japan dropped by 11 per cent, with China (the world’s largest new car market) also down, although its final figures have yet to be reported at the time of writing.

For BEV sales penetration globally, the 6.6 per cent of BEVs sold in the UK were out-paced by 6.7 per cent of all sales in France and close to 10 per cent in Germany, with Norway taking the world crown for having the highest zero-emission car sales penetration on the Planet, with a 54 per cent share of overall new car sales.

Globally the Toyota Corolla was the world’s best-selling new car overall in 2020, with the Volkswagen Golf narrowly beating the Renault Clio to pole position in Europe, and the Ford F-Series pick-up predictably topping the US sales chart as always.


Some manufacturers such as top-seller Toyota and rapidly-expanding MG enjoyed enviable success in 2020. Volvo reporting its second best sales year ever in its 94-year history, with Lamborghini breaking its best six month sales record from Quarter 3. BMW’s M division finished last year at an all-time record 144,218 units, outselling the once mighty Jaguar which had a miserable year at just 102,494 sales, a 36.5 per cent decline against 2019, with JLR itself down 23.6 per cent at 425,974 cars in total.

Although off to a rough start initially, 2021 promises to be a brighter year for the motor industry than 2020, with the optimistic prospect of various approved vaccines being rolled out globally at an unprecedented rate, along with a raft of interesting new car models waiting to enter the market, from the small new BEV Fiat 500 to the V12-powered Gordon Murray T.50 hypercar. Happy days are (almost) here again…

  • Ford

  • Fiesta

  • Lamborghini

  • Huracan

  • Toyota

  • Corolla

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