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9 Apr 2021

Car dealerships are opening - is now a good time to buy a new car?

With car dealers reopening their doors, find out if now is the right time to put money down on a new car. Plus how to stay safe when visiting showrooms
Car showroom

Car dealerships will open their doors in England and Wales from Monday 12 April - a week later than Scottish showrooms - marking the first time that customers can place orders in person since the start of the third lockdown in January.

In line with the English and Welsh lockdown roadmaps, all non-essential businesses will be able to serve customers face to face. Previously, car dealers were operating on a click-and-collect basis only - which will still be the case in Northern Ireland.

The news is likely to prove a relief to a motor industry that has suffered heavily during the pandemic. Sales have been decimated over the course of the past year, with the SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturer and Traders) stating that a shortfall in sales has cost carmakers £1.8 billion over the first quarter of 2021 alone.

The situation is slowly improving, with sales in March up 12% over this time last year. However, the SMMT estimates that around 8,300 vehicles will need to be registered every day for sales to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The re-opening of dealerships is also good news if you're in the market for a new car. While many manufacturers will continue to offer online sales and delivery, there's no substitute for thoroughly test driving a new car before signing on the dotted line.

Read on below to find out how to buy your next car and stay safe while shopping.

Our tough lab and road tests will make sure you pick the perfect model for your budget. See our expert round-up of the best cars for 2021.

What price should I pay for a new car?

used car prices

With dealerships keen to attract new sales, keep an eye out for special offers, including:

  • Interest-free finance on PCP and leasing agreements
  • Significant discounts on pre-registered models

A number of new models have been 'facelifted' (receiving minor mid-life updates) over the past year, including the Seat Ateca crossover and Volkswagen Tiguan SUV. This means there may be decent savings to be had on 'old' models that have been left unsold due to the downturn in sales in 2020.

However, an industry insider told us that discounts on new models might be harder to wrangle, as many dealers had their sales targets reduced over the pandemic and are largely dealing with serious customers who are ready to buy.

'This swings the negotiating power to the dealers' favour and they have gotten used to it, and have got more brave in defending their discounts over recent months,' he commented.

Don't let this put you off trying to get a better price, as it's always worth viewing the list price of any new car as the starting point for your negotiations. You can use our guide on how to get the best price on a car, and its haggling script, to ensure you get the best deal.

If you don't fancy haggling, car comparison sites such as Carwow let you send your desired car specification to dealers nationwide. You can then pick the one that offers the largest discount.

For more advice on how to choose the perfect model for your budget, see our expert guide on how to buy the best new car.

Can you test drive a new car?

Masked car salesman & customer

Dealerships will essentially be operating a business as usual setup - albeit with social distancing and other Covid-related measures in place.

As such, you'll need to wear a mask when visiting, and you'll likely be directed to hand sanitiser stations as you enter. If you're used to tea and biscuits while car shopping, you're probably going to be disappointed, as refreshments are unlikely to be offered.

To maintain social distancing, test drives will likely be unaccompanied. Demand is likely to be high in the first few weeks, so it's worth ringing ahead to make sure there's a demonstration vehicle available.

We'd always recommend test driving any car before buying. If you're in a particular hurry to buy, it's worth considering dealerships further afield.

Your driving habits may have changed dramatically post-lockdown. If you're not sure which fuel type best suits your requirements, head to our guide on petrol vs diesel vs hybrid.

Hybrid and electric cars proving popular

Hyundai Kona EV

Despite only minor improvements in sales currently, electric and plug-in hybrid cars are enjoying increased popularity as drivers re-evaluate their driving needs post-lockdown.

Year-to-date sales, compared with 2020:

  • Up 94% - plug-in hybrid (PHEVs)
  • Up 74% - battery electric vehicles (BEVs)
  • Down 47% - diesel
  • Down 28% - petrol

Traditional internal combustion cars have seen the most severe decrease sales. The popularity of diesel cars was already diminished before the pandemic, and sales are down a whopping 47% compared to the first quarter of 2020.

Petrol cars have also seen a downturn. Although as more manufacturers add electric tech to improve efficiency, many such models have evolved into mild hybrids (MHEV), which have seen a 100% increase in popularity.

Early adopters of hydrogen fuel cell (FCEV) models aren't being put off by the UK's severe lack of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, either, with 31,604 finding homes in the past three months. This is a 12% increase in sales on hydrogen cars.

Not yet ready to go all-electric? Discover which part-electric models aced our road and lab tests - see the best hybrid cars for 2021.

More on this

(Updated: 9 April 15:07 with the addition of Which? price expert insight.)