Mazda 3 SkyActiv-X Prototype
Mazda is just one of the car manufacturers investing heavily in the next generation of petrol engines

This article was first published in Forecourt News, the magazine of the Irish Petrol Retailers Association (IPRA). You can download the magazine online here.

The IPRA is the representative body for petrol retailers in Ireland, providing advice and guidance to members as well as lobbying on their behalf. Please check out their website here to find out more about the work of the IPRA.

In the article I discuss the resurgence of sales of petrol cars in Ireland, and the brands that are winning, as buyers look for good petrol alternatives to the diesel family car.

Cast your mind back to 2008. The Irish Government had just moved the motor tax system for new cars to one based on CO2 emissions. The new system rewarded vehicles with the lowest CO2 emissions with a lower cost of annual motor tax and favoured the diesel cars of the day.

Irish motorists began to desert petrol cars in their droves. In 2007, petrol accounted for about 70% of the new car market in Ireland; by 2011 diesel accounted for about 70% of the new car market. We went from being a country with a strong petrol bias to one with a strong diesel bias. Similar trends were seen in other European countries.

But petrol is now undergoing an unlikely resurgence. In the last few years diesel cars have received some terrible press regarding false manufacturer claims on emissions. In 2017, the media was awash with reports of diesel bans in many European cities.

There is already some movement in the industry away from diesel. Toyota announced earlier this year that the company will begin to phase out diesel engines in passenger cars in 2018 in favour of petrol and hybrid models. Honda launched the tenth generation Civic in 2017 with two petrol engines (though a diesel has since joined the range). The next Honda CR-V SUV will be available in hybrid and petrol only when it arrives in Ireland later in 2018.

Fuel pumps
Sales of petrol cars in Ireland are undergoing a resurgence

So as the industry and consumer buying behaviour begins to change, who are the winners?

Petrol electric hybrids and plug-in hybrids are making gains, with sales so far in 2018 up about 67% on 2017. But this still only equates to about 4,178 cars.

Petrol is the real winner as buyers stop defaulting to diesel. According to figures from the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, sales of new petrol cars are up nearly 20% in 2018, equating to about 26,940 new petrol cars registered in Ireland in the first three months of the year. Market share for petrol is up now to about 38% from 30% in 2017, while diesel has slipped down to 56% already in 2018 from 67% in 2017.

Individual brands are also seeing the same shift away from their previously popular diesel models. At a press briefing given by Nissan Ireland in December 2017, Irish motoring journalists were shown some interesting data on 2018 pre-orders for the brand. Nissan has a strong market share in Ireland with the Qashqai being the bestselling car in Ireland in March 2018. There is also a petrol and diesel option so the Qashqai is a good barometer for what is happening in the market.

Nissan’s data showed that the number of new car buyers who had opted to buy the petrol version of the Nissan Qashqai had increased from 29% in 2017 to 54% for 2018. The numbers buying the diesel model have fallen from 71% to 46%.

It’s clear that car buyers are no longer defaulting to diesel and are really doing the maths and looking at the sort of journeys they make to work out what the best option is for them in the long run.

Nissan Qashqai
The Nissan Qashqai is Ireland’s bestselling car. According to Nissan, the Qashqai’s popularity is driven by the availability of petrol engines in their range

Manufacturers who can offer good, efficient petrol engines in their model ranges now have the opportunity to really ride the crest of this wave. The last few years have seen a trend in the industry for engine downsizing, with the likes of Ford, Peugeot, Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and the Volkswagen Group leading the way. The addition of turbochargers has facilitated the manufacture of powerful and efficient three-cylinder engines, some with as little capacity as 1.0-litre. But in small to medium-sized cars these are more than capable of lugging around the average family and their gear.

Brands are also investing more in making their petrol engines even more efficient with manufacturers like Mazda claiming that the next generation of petrol engines could be as efficient as an electric vehicle when measured ‘well-to-wheel’. Mazda’s SKYACTIV-X petrol engine with innovative Spark Controlled Compression Ignition is currently in development and Mazda claims that engine efficiency will be up 20%-30% over the current generation of Mazda petrol engines when the engines go into production in 2019.

Many people are predicting the demise of the internal combustion engine. But there is vagueness about when and too much doubt still about electric for anyone to write off the internal combustion engine just yet. We can expect to see more innovative petrol technology in the next few years. For now at least, petrol seems to be the real winner.

Caroline Kidd