Thursday 19 September 2019

Why I believe 2018 will come to be seen as a pivotal year for motoring


Future stars: The Hyundai Kona Electric
Future stars: The Hyundai Kona Electric
The hybrid Toyota Corolla Touring Sports
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

I think 2018 will be looked on as a pivotal year for motoring. One could almost feel the shift in sentiment across a whole range of issues. Naturally, talk of diesel dominated the headlines and airwaves as buyers in their considerable numbers moved, or thought about moving, to petrol, hybrid or electric.

The trend will shift up another gear next year but 2018 was when, I would argue, a definitive line was crossed.

After years of humming and hawing, we seemed to collectively accept we are moving towards something different. Exactly what that is remains unclear in detail but certain in global terms: the future is electric and we better get on board.

When I spoke with then environment minister Denis Naughten back in the early spring, I had to put it to him four times that he meant what he was saying.

The hybrid Toyota Corolla Touring Sports
The hybrid Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

Yes, he replied each time. By 2030 no new diesel, petrol or hybrid (that was the real shocker) cars would be on sale in Ireland. What an 'official' statement that was.

He was, and the Government presumably remains, certain such a bold target can be met. I don't think it can be nailed in that time frame but it will be done at some stage soon enough thereafter. The recent announcement of an extended and improved charging infrastructure is encouraging. Sure, there's a long way to go in what is a relatively short window - 11 years - but there is momentum gathering.

The fact of the matter is we are heading down a one-way street toward Electric City. Such 'certainty' has and will accelerate one-time dominant diesel's demise. For many years it was the equivalent of the must-have Christmas toy. Then, thanks mainly to Volkswagen's dark arts with cheating emissions in cars, it quite suddenly became so 'last year'. Overnight, the bells rang out for other power bases.

Diesel had been number one virtually every year since 2008. That's when we canonised it as the Saint of Lower CO2 emissions and tempted tens of thousands to switch to the fuel that cut purchase and road taxes. There wasn't a word about the really harmful effects that NOx emissions can have on health in densely-populated urban areas. They've only concentrated our minds this past three years or so - and more emphatically in 2018.

It is important to remember too that diesel's current sales decline is part of a realistic readjustment. Prior to the great turn on, petrol was at least as popular - if not more.

Now that a semblance of sense has been restored, more people are buying petrol for the moderate number of kilometres they travel each year. A few years ago they'd have been buying diesel to cover 7,000kms. Madness.

It is also dawning on people that petrol technology has improved beyond recognition. Unprecedented numbers of those came on the market in 2018. It's also worth mentioning that petrol cars are usually €2,000 or so less expensive than diesels to buy new; you'd put a lot of fuel in your tank for that lump of money.

It was a pivotal year also for the sort of new car most of us now want to drive: it's an SUV or Crossover. We are buying so many that the genre currently makes up the single largest segment on the market.

It is trending at an extraordinary level. It would be simplistic to say people are just jumping on the fashionable bandwagon. There is a bit more to it than that. They like the high-seated driving position, the space, versatility and opportunity to drive something different from the saloons and hatchbacks which dominated sales charts for so long.

Such has been the surge in SUV buying and the plunge (there is no other word for it) in your conventional small/large family saloon during 2018 that some industry observers doubt if the latter can survive in the medium term. It's looking like Christmas present and future for the SUV and electric cars; but Christmas past for saloons and diesel.

And it's Christmas every day for buyers and sellers of used imports; 2018 was another record year of buying them.

They now nudge the 100,000 mark for the first time - an extraordinary figure in our relatively small Irish market.

Here you have a situation where cars up the North, as an example, can be bought for less simply because the exchange rate has been favourable to the euro against Sterling. And while lots of people went North or to England for 'bargains', so did dealers.

Some import high volumes of used cars and sell them alongside 'Irish' vehicles whose price has been reduced because of the cheaper UK motors. Only in Ireland, eh? I must say, I am intrigued by the entire exercise.

Now more people are buying an import without leaving the country; they get a warranty from their Irish dealer and the reassurance of proximity should anything go wrong. It's called having your cake and eating it. And 2018 highlighted that with gusto. However, the volume of import buying has impacted heavily and negatively on two areas this past year.

One, your 'Irish' trade-in is, as I've outlined, worth considerably less than it would have been at this stage of its life three years ago. So if you want to trade against a new car, you'll have to dig deeper.

Two, people are, as a result of cheaper fresh imports, buying far fewer new cars than the current economic backdrop would warrant.

But nothing is normal these days. Despite talk of a booming economy, there are gloomy predictions for new-car registrations next year as some experts anticipate even higher numbers of used imports.

That's a debate for another day.

For now, after a topsy-turvy 2018, it is clear we, as car buyers, have become a much more discerning lot. Online access has played a huge part but so has the near-incessant discussion around diesel and electric.

Hybrid as a concept and solution caught on big time in 2018 too: it was definitely a pivotal year on that front. Sales figures reflect major hybrid growth but I believe we'll see dramatically more as people focus on taking the first step from diesel/petrol to pure electric cars.

Several global makers announced they are ending or phasing out production of new diesels. Toyota is probably the most noteworthy in that respect as it has just ceased making diesel passenger cars full stop in favour of heavy reliance on hybrid.

Like so many other developments over 2018, the Toyota decision underlines my claim that it has been a pivotal year for motoring and motorists.

So here's to another one in 2019. Happy Christmas.

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