New car sales in the UK will be higher than expected this year as the lockdown eases and the vaccine rollout spurs an economic bump, the industry’s trade body has forecast.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders on Wednesday raised its sales forecast for the year to 1.86m new cars, about 14 per cent higher than 2020 and up on the 1.83m it predicted in February.

However, this would still be a fifth lower than the annual average over the past 10 years of 2.33m cars.

New car sales during April were 141,583, about 13 per cent lower than the decade average for that month, although considerably higher than the 4,321 sold in April last year, when showrooms were closed in the UK’s first pandemic lockdown.

Commercial vehicle sales, however, reached a record level in April, as demand for home deliveries continued to rise. Registrations were 30,440 during the month, 23 per cent higher than the five-year average, the SMMT said.

On Wednesday, carmaker Stellantis announced it will add a third shift at the Luton van plant, which makes Vauxhall, Peugeot, Opel and Citroën vans, from June.

“After one of the darkest years in automotive history, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive.

“A full recovery for the sector is still some way off, but with showrooms open and consumers able to test drive the latest, cleanest models, the industry can begin to rebuild.”

The SMMT expects electric cars to account for 9 per cent of new sales this year, and a further 6 per cent to be plug-in hybrid cars, meaning that one in seven cars sold would be significantly battery-powered.

Between January and April, 7 per cent of new car sales were fully electric, and additional models are set to be released in the coming months by manufacturers under pressure to lower carbon emissions.

There were 9,152 electric cars sold in April — more than the number sold during all of 2018.

Ian Plummer, commercial director at Auto Trader, said that one in seven car searches on his company’s website was currently for an electric model.

“Whilst conversion from consideration to purchase remains relatively low, we have no doubt the levels of adoption will accelerate significantly as they become more affordable and the required infrastructure improves,” he said.

Last month’s figures were boosted by the reopening of car showrooms.

Dealerships could sell vehicles online throughout the month using click and collect services, but could only reopen physically from April 12.

“While these figures suggest a positive return to face-to-face trading, it is clear that the coming months will be critical to the bounce back,” said Jim Holder, editorial director of Haymarket Automotive, which publishes the What Car? and Autocar magazines.

After two national lockdowns that forced showrooms to close, Holder said dealers were eager to ensure showrooms remain open, adding that another lockdown would be “potentially ruinous” for many operators.

Sue Robinson, chief executive of the National Franchised Dealers Association, said: “Since reopening, customer footfall and volume of inquiries at dealerships have been strong and driving schools are seeing a major increase in young people booking driving lessons and tests.”