The best and worst selling cars of 2021 | Axon's Automotive Anorak

28th January 2022
Gary Axon

Just when we thought the world couldn’t get any worse than was in 2020, along came 2021 as an even tougher and more challenging year! Life remained increasingly difficult for everyone, with new strains of Covid-19, plus spiralling inflation, economic concerns and world peace looking increasingly precarious, thrown into the mix just for good measure.


For the world’s automotive sector, it wasn’t just the ongoing global pandemic that hit the new vehicle markets particularly hard last year. The growing shortage of essential microchips for vehicles, plus constant supply and transportation/logistical problems, added to the misery. The result was declines in planned new car production, plus increasing shortages and extended delivery times for new car buyers, stretching up to four years in the case of those wanting a new Toyota Land Cruiser, for example. 

Here in the UK, new vehicle production fell to its lowest level since 1956. That said, Goodwood-based Rolls-Royce Motor Cars enjoyed its best-ever production year at 5,586 units, a growth of 49 per cent over 2020, with Crewe rival Bentley up 30 per cent worldwide at 14,695 cars, although JLR sadly witnesses a marginal 1 per cent decline overall in global demand.

Though bad news for the new vehicle industry, the ongoing microchip and supply difficulties created an unexpected bonus for used car retailers as the shortage of new cars saw demand and the values of second-hand vehicles surge to record levels. Some recently-registered low-mileage used cars actually fetched stronger prices than their brand new, unregistered siblings.


Last year saw some unprecedented changes to the make-up of the new car markets around the world too. In the UK for 2021, the pending implementation and ill-considered Governmental knee-jerk restrictions on the future sales of ICE (internal combustion-engined) passenger cars by 2030 created a surge in demand for so-called lower emission vehicles as car companies (plus a growing number of consumers) rushed into building and buying more BEV electric cars, plus a bewildering array of various styles of plug-in hybrids, etc. 

The fiercely competitive UK new car market changed almost beyond recognition in 2021. Ford lost its overall British new passenger car market lead for the first time since wrestling pole position away from British Leyland half-a-century ago, with its Fiesta (consistently the UK’s best-selling new car since its launch here 45 years ago) finally usurped by its more modern Vauxhall Corsa rival as this Country’s most popular new car in 2021. Not only was the Fiesta toppled from the top of its most popular new car plinth, but it also suffered the ignominy of failing to even make the UK’s Top Ten best-sellers list for the very first time since the model’s original launch 45 years ago, now being outsold by the Puma in the Ford passenger car range.

The Ford Fiesta did retain its British number one position in one segment though, retaining its lead as the UK’s most stolen car last year (with its larger Focus sibling proving to be the most scrapped car in 2021). Ford’s only real UK highlight for 2021 was its Transit Custom van, which ended a tough year by becoming Britain’s best-selling four-wheeled vehicle, proving even more popular than the Stellantis Group’s Corsa.


Total UK new car registrations improved by a marginal 1 per cent over a disastrous 2020, finishing the year at 1,647,181 new cars (versus 1.63m in 2020), the worst new car sales result since 1992, and down almost 29 per cent against pre-pandemic levels in 2019 (though still Europe’s third-largest new car market, after a struggling Germany and France). Private new car sales grew by 7.4 per cent, to take a healthy 48.7 per cent of the total market, the highest none-fleet sector share for many years.

Last year, one in every six new cars sold here were pure battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) at 190,727 units, this bettering the previous five years combined of total BEV sales, with 18.5 per cent of all UK new cars sold now capable of being plugged in to account for a 27.5 per cent of overall sales volume. For ICE models, petrol car demand reduced by 15.7 per cent to 762,103 units, to take 46.3 per cent of total sales (versus 55.4 per cent in 2020). Diesel sales were unsurprisingly down over 48 per cent last year to account for just 8.2 per cent of the total new car market, (down from a 16 per cent share in 2020).

Volkswagen took over for the first time as the UK’s most popular car brand, despite its total sales dropping by 8 per cent. Registering around 37,000 battery-powered cars gave VW a strong 19.5 per cent share of the expanding BEV sector in the UK, however, even outselling the ‘established’ Tesla as Britain’s leading electric car brand. As an aside, the BEV Nissan Leaf proved to be the UK’s most demanded used car during 2021.


Britain’s top-selling new passenger cars for 2021 by model were as follows:




Vauxhall Corsa


Tesla Model 3




Mercedes-Benz A-Class


Volkswagen Polo


Volkswagen Golf


Nissan Qashqai


Ford Puma


Kia Sportage


Toyota Yaris

On a wider global basis, the microchip shortage plagued virtually all new car markets, with the largest markets of China, the USA, Japan and so on all suffering declines. Increasing interest in BEVs helped address the decline in ICE demand though, with EVs growing by a whopping 158 per cent in China, for example.

Globally for the ever-dominant German premium carmakers, BMW out-performed Mercedes-Benz for the first time in five years with record sales, up by over 9 per cent. The VW Group’s Audi fell by almost 1 per cent but its sporting Porsche badge enjoyed record global sales, up by an impressive 57.5 per cent, thanks to strong demand for its EV models. Volume sector Skoda fell by 13 per cent at 878,200 cars over its 2020 result. 

If and when the super chip supply and logistical situations improve, 2022 promises to be a far healthier year for the automotive industry, with UK new car sales, for example, forecast by the SMMT to reach a stronger 1.96 million units, and worldwide sales expected to grow similarly, with BEVs and SUVs accounting for most of the increased sales volume. Here’s hoping…

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