Demand for Birmingham-built Maxus vans surged by nearly a third in December as a booming commercial vehicle market went some way to allaying fears of a sharp economic slowdown.

Sales of vans and trucks grew by 6.6 per cent in the last month of 2007 to 26,047, figures produced by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders showed.

Year on year, the market grew by 1.5 per cent to 388,488 vehicles.

The figures will be studied closely by economists because demand for commercial vehicles is regarded as a reliable benchmark of the overall state of the economy.

Companies, including hauliers and fleet operators, order new vans and lorries when they are confident that business levels are growing, or at least holding firm, and stop buying when times are hard. "December's registrations completed another excellent year for the UK's van and truck sectors," SMMT chief executive Paul Everitt said.

"We saw a record 337,741 van regis-trations and trucks again made strong gains, as expected. Demand for vans remains very strong, focused on heavy models."

LDV, the Russian-owned company that builds the Maxus at its long-established plant in Washwood Heath, Birmingham, registered a total of 610 vehicles in the UK December, a rise of 31 per cent over the same month last year.

The figure includes 58 vehicles sold into the heavy van market, a segment of the market new to the company.

For 2007 as a whole, the company sold a total of 8,667 vehicles (including 671 in the heavy sector), yielding a gain of 14.5 per cent. Combining the two sectors gives LDV a 2.23 per cent share of the total UK commercial vehicle market.

Up to last night LDV, which is moving into new export markets on the back of heavy investment on the part of its parent group, Gaz, had not announced its worldwide sales for 2007.

The boom in van sales is partly due to strong growth in internet retail sales, experts believe.

Meanwhile yesterday, Land Rover confirmed that it broke all records in 2007 with worldwide sales of 226,391 cars, although figures from some smaller markets have not yet been received.

The figure includes sales commercial variants of some Land Rover models which, according to the SMMT totalled just over 4,000 units last year.

The 60-year-old 4x4 manufacturer is benefiting from strong demand for its new Freelander 2 model as well as for top priced Range Rovers and Range Rover Sports. "This is the third successive record year for Land Rover," spokesman Mark Foster said. "There have been strong gains in emerging markets as well as solid showings in the established ones. We have continued to improve in markets where a number of years ago we didn't have a presence. Emerging markets such as Russia and China are increasingly important to us, along with eastern Europe."

Among other key Europe carmakers, French volume carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen and German luxury brand Mercedes posted small increases in 2007 vehicle sales, in a sector spooked by fears that a recession could stifle demand this year.

PSA, Europe's second-biggest carmaker after Volkswagen, said its vehicle sales - passenger cars and vans - rose by 3.8 per cent to 3,233,00 units.

Daimler, fresh from divorcing American brand Chrysler which it sold to Cerberus Capital Management, said it posted a sales record for its Mercedes-Benz brand in 2007, up by 3.2 per cent to 1.19 million, while sales of the Maybach super-luxury limousines were steady at 400 cars.

While European automotive shares have fallen recently with the DJ Stoxx Auto Index down 24 per cent from a high in November, sector analysts said the outlook for 2008 volumes was stable.