LONDON -- The number of new cars sold in the UK last year fell to its lowest since 2013, as consumers held back from purchases amid increased restrictions on diesel vehicles and ongoing economic uncertainty in the run-up to Brexit.
Britain is Europe's second-largest market for new vehicles, and Monday's figures add to signs that households grew more cautious about their spending last year, despite low unemployment and rising wages.
New-car registrations dropped by 2 percent in 2019 to 2.31 million, according to provisional data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the third annual fall since sales peaked at 2.69 million in 2016.
"Undoubtedly consumer confidence on big-ticket items is still very weak," SMMT CEO Executive Mike Hawes said.
Car buyers' reluctance to purchase diesel vehicles following Volkswagen Group's emissions scandal, plus planned restrictions on older diesel vehicles going into city centers, also hurt demand.
Sales in December alone were up 4 percent from a year earlier, when stocks of some models were limited pending new emissions tests.
Brexit remained the industry's top concern, Hawes said, due to the risk of 10 percent tariffs on imports and exports of cars in 2021 if Prime Minister Boris Johnson cannot negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union before then.
A tariff of this level would make a lot of car production in Britain uneconomic, and the risk of this has caused many automakers' investment plans to stall, he said.
"There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, but it is a dull, flickering one at best," he said.
Tougher environmental rules are another problem for the industry. After Brexit, Britain is expected to stick to existing EU plans to fine automakers whose vehicles emit more than 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer traveled, which will take full effect in 2021.
Cars sold last year in Britain emitted 127.9 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer on average, up 2.7 percent from a year earlier and above the 2018 EU average of 120.4 grams, largely due to Britons' increasing preference for bigger cars.
Fewer sales of more efficient diesel cars, and a change to emissions-testing methods, also played a role.
Currently automakers can offset emissions from cars sold in Britain against those sold in other markets, such as Italy, where buyers favor smaller, more efficient vehicles. But after Brexit this is unlikely to be possible, Hawes said.
To reduce the extra cost for consumers and industry, Britain should expand subsidies for full-electric cars, which made up under 2 percent of sales last year, Hawes said.