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Versatility helps the new van market withstand 2017's economic pressures

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Back in July, we reported on a tough first six months for new van sales in 2017, with registrations down from the record highs of the past two years. The story in the three months since has been much the same: 2.0% fewer new vans were registered than in the same period of 2016, according to the latest figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

As with the decline in new car sales, the SMMT puts this dip down to ‘economic and political uncertainty’, which has taken its toll on business confidence and therefore demand for new commercial vehicles. It also points out, rightly, that sales are still at historically high levels, even though they’ve fallen a little from their peak last year.

As the graph below shows, 366,680 new vans were registered in the year to September. That’s down 3.3% on the record high of 379,383 in the previous 12 months, but still higher than at any time before the last two years.

Two segments of the light commercial vehicle market have grown in the last year, however: medium vans and pickups.

Vans weighing between 2 and 2.5 tonnes were squeezed out slightly in 2015 and 2016, mainly because more businesses were turning to larger vehicles. In the last year, that trend has started to reverse. Registrations of medium-weight vans grew by 11.1% in the year to September, whereas registrations of those weighing 2.5 to 3.5 tonnes fell by 4.8%. It seems that economic pressures are not only reducing the number of vans fleets procure, but also affecting the size of vehicles they choose.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the rise of pickups has had a similar squeezing-out effect on 4x4s. Registrations of commercial pickups are up 15.4% on last year, and have more than doubled since 2012. 4x4 registrations, by contrast, have fallen by 92.8% in the last year – to just 471 in the past 12 months. The commercial 4x4 may be nearing extinction as a species.

Although there are clearly big economic pressures on fleets at the moment, van sales remain strong by historical standards. The changing breakdown of these registrations shows one big reason for this: the variety and versatility of the commercial vehicle market.

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