Household income squeeze drives down sales of new cars in Northern Ireland to a five-year low
Northern Ireland car dealers faced the slowest month for sales in five years during March, new figures show.
And quarterly sales have also hit a five-year-low as household incomes continue to face a squeeze, it's been claimed.
The Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said there had been a 17% slump in new cars sold during the month of March with a total of 7,122 - down from 8,556 the year before. Between January and March, there were 17,200 new cars sold.
But Scotland faced an even steeper fall in March at 21%, while new car sales were down 15% in England.
And the Ford Fiesta retained its position as the province's most popular car, with 267 sold, followed by the Ford Kuga on 239.
Despite the impact of the Beast from the East on other retail sales, Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said the decline was not weather-related.
"It wasn't due to the Beast from the East dissuading would-be car buyers from venturing out to dealers' forecourts," he said.
"Instead the steep falls are largely due to the inflated sales figures in March 2017. Back then Northern Ireland car sales increased by 10% year on year.
"However, this was distorted by a change in Vehicle Excise Duty in April 2017, which incentivised consumers to bring forward their plans to buy a new car."
He said it was more useful to consider quarterly sales for the first three months but added that the trend for falling sales remained.
"The trend in new car sales remains a downward one. There were 17,200 new cars sold in the first quarter of 2018. This was over 9% fewer than last year and the lowest volume of new car sales for quarter one since 2013, when there were 15,987 cars sold."
And Mr Ramsey said the latest quarterly figures were well below a peak reached 11 years ago.
"The latest quarterly figures are also 25% below the peak of almost 23,000 vehicles in quarter one 2007," he added.
A consideration of sales over the last 12 months also showed the same drop, he said. There had been 52,600 new cars sold in Northern Ireland in the last 12 months - down 8.5% on the previous year and almost 25% below the 2007 peak of 68,708.
"Given the continued squeeze on household incomes, the expectation is that Northern Ireland will experience a further softening in new car sales in the year ahead," Mr Ramsey said.
Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said the decline in March was "not unexpected" after the surge in registrations in Mach last year.
But he added: "Despite this, the market itself is relatively high with the underlying factors in terms of consumer choice, finance availability and cost of ownership all highly competitive.
"Consumer and business confidence, however, has taken a knock in recent months and a thriving new car market is essential to the overall health of our economy.
"This means creating the right economic conditions for all types of consumers to have the confidence to buy new vehicles.
"All technologies, regardless of fuel type, have a role to play in helping improve air quality whilst meeting our climate change targets, so government must do more to encourage consumers to buy new vehicles rather than hang onto their older, more polluting vehicles."