Supermini sales soar as buyers give fuel price rises the body swerve

Key quote

Big cars are becoming socially stigmatised. Twenty years ago, the public reaction stigmatised drink-driving and you're seeing something similar with 4x4s. There is a definite guilt thing there. - JIM DUNN, MOTORING CORRESPONDENT

Story in full SALES of superminis soared last month as drivers appeared to be taking the "green" message on board. Registrations of cars such as Ford Fiestas and Renault Clios in January were up 18.7 per cent on the same month a year ago, with industry experts saying recent fuel prices were also contributing to the trend towards smaller cars.

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The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) figures come as a survey showed car buyers wanted better information about the environmental impact of models.

Nearly 55,000 superminis were registered in January, with the category accounting for almost one-third of the market.

The increase comes in the midst of a general decline in new car sales over the past three years. Consumers, trying to tighten their belts amid growing personal debt and spiralling fuel costs, are less willing to splash out on new vehicles - especially as increasing reliability is making it more attractive to run older cars, according to the Scottish Motor Trade Association.

But the supermini is bucking that trend. In 2006, almost 754,000 of these smaller vehicles were sold in the UK - a rise of nearly 3 per cent on 2005. And the latest figures show they are on track for even greater sales this year.

The supermini's rise follows a recent decline in sales of 4x4 off-road vehicles.

Last night, Neil Greig, the head of policy in Scotland for the Institute of Advanced Motorists' Motoring Trust, said environmental concerns had become a factor for those buying new vehicles.

He said: "The figures suggest people are trading down and responding to government signals, which could be the start of an important trend."

However, he warned that more needed to be done, with most decisions coming down to cost.

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"The financial incentives on offer, such as cuts in vehicle tax, are still not enough. There should be a far greater difference in taxing the most and least environmentally friendly vehicles than the 10-30 at the moment," Mr Greig said.

The latest findings follow an AA survey in December which found 17 per cent of people in the market for a new vehicle were planning to buy a "green" car - three times as many as the previous year.

An AA spokesman said: "With the likelihood of more cities introducing congestion charging, tax incentives for greener cars and road pricing, we expect car buyers to continue to choose environmentally friendly cars over gas-guzzlers."

And in a survey published this week by motor-sales group Gilbran, 86 per cent of car buyers wanted manufacturers to provide standardised, easy-to-understand information on the environmental performance and impact of their models. The figure was 91 per cent among women.

In addition, 86 per cent of drivers would like to see evidence that car dealers were improving their environmental performance. Nearly half of those polled said manufacturers provided insufficient environmental information.

Nigel Smith, the managing director of Gilbran, said: "Environmental concerns will inevitably continue to rise up car buyers' agendas and our research suggests manufacturers and dealers embracing this demand and providing the information customers require will be well placed to win the battle for buyers' hearts and minds, as well as their wallets."

Jim Dunn, The Scotsman's motoring correspondent, said: "Big cars are becoming socially stigmatised. Twenty years ago, the public reaction stigmatised drink-driving and you're seeing something similar with 4x4s. There is a definite guilt thing there."

Christopher Macgowan, the SMMT's chief executive, said fuel costs were a key reason why people were buying smaller cars, but buyers also considered emissions important.

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