Jaguar put the brakes on its sales slide and bucked another dip in the UK new car market in March.

The Ford-owned company regis-tered 5,166 units in March, one more than in the same month last year, trade figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders showed yesterday.

That extra car may have represented a microscopic month-on month increase of just 0.02 per cent - but it was grounds for celebration at Jaguar.

"We have had one of our best March sales performances on record and our best ever March for XK sports car sales," a spokesman said. "There is a real buzz around the brand."

The "Big Cat" has had a torrid time recently as it struggled to claw out a share of an increasingly competitive luxury sector.

It lost 19 per cent of its sales in 2005 and began this year with a 17 per cent dip in January followed by a 21 per cent fall in February.

Yesterday's SMMT figures showed that Jaguar was five per cent down on the first quarter with cumulative sales of 7,060 compared with 7,470 in the same three months last year.

To an extent, the sales decline has been planned.

The company said some time ago that it had abandoned the chase for volume (following the comparative failure of the Ford Mondeo-based X-Type "baby Jag") in favour of finding well-heeled buyers for its more up market, higher margin, and inherently more profitable, models.

But it is now getting the boost it needed from the arrival in the s howrooms of the new Birmingham-built, aluminiumbodied, XK sports car.

Not only has the roadster won rave reviews from the motoring press, advance orders totalling more than 6,000 mean about half this year's production quota is already spoken for.

Significantly, customers are on average spending £6,500 extra per vehicle on options such as alloy wheels and aluminium interior finishes.

Vindication, says Jaguar, of its strategy of nursing the heavily loss-making business back to health.

Overall, new car registrations fell by 1.6 per cent to 435,874 units in March, confirming the trend that has seen the UK emerge as one of the weakest of the main European markets.

First quarter sales were 4.6 per cent adrift at 669,206. It means that British drivers have bought in the order of 32,000 fewer new cars so far this year - a reflection, says the SMMT, of the "subdued general economic picture".

Chief executive Christopher Macgowan said: "The lure of the new 06 registration plate and some excellent deals on the forecourts has seen new car buyers heading back to dealerships.

"However, a reasonable March cannot mask the poor start to the year, and 2006 will continue to be a challenge for the industry as we fight for every sale."

Land Rover underlined its continuing sales boom with a rise of 26 per cent to 9,704 units in March and was 17 per cent up on the year so far at 11,879.

Among other local carmakers, Aston Martin, based at Gaydon in Warwickshire and part of Ford's Premier Automotive Group along with Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo, virtually doubled sales of its V8 Vantage, Vanquish and DB9 models to 377 units in March and was ten per cent up on the year to date at 616. BMW-owned Mini gained a marginal 0.2 per cent last month at 7,687 units but was 17 per cent down on the first quarter at 9,948.