West Midland manufacturers suffered as the western European car market went into reverse in March, traditionally the busiest month of the year.

Total new car registrations in the 15 core European Union countries fell by 3.7 per cent to 1,610,053.

Taking returns from the eight new member states (excluding Malta and Cyprus) and the three EFTA countries of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland into account, the market was 4.7 per cent down at 1,709,616.

Acea, the European carmakers' association, said the early Easter holiday which resulted in up to three fewer working days in March had contributed to the decline.

But it went to say that the figures also confirmed the " sluggisheconomic environment" affecting Europe.

Of the five main markets, only France (plus-2.5 per cent) showed an increase in car sales last month.

Of the rest, the UK was 5.1 per cent down, Italy was 8.6 per cent adrift, Spain lost 3.6 per cent and Germany was 0.4 per cent down. The Acea figures underlined MG Rover's problems in shifting its cars out of the showrooms.

The last full month before its collapse into administration saw the company, which has a one per cent share of the European market, sell 16,103 cars in the 18 core EU and Efta countries, a fall of 11.4 per cent over the same month last year.

For the first three months of the year, sales of MG and Rover cars were 15.6 per cent down at 29,131.

Land Rover's and Jaguar's European sales performances reflected their UK declines reported last week.

Land Rover, which says its current sales figures mask high demand for the new Discovery and a full order book for the Range Rover Sport, fell by 12.2 per cent last month to 10,294 and was 7.1 per cent down on the year to date at 20,452.

Jaguar, which is concentrating on chasing margin rather than volume, was 23 per cent down on the month and the first quarter with sales of 7,088 and 12,950 respectively.

Peugeot, which is axing a shift at its Ryton factory, near Coventry, where it builds the 206 model, saw its sales fall by 10.7 per cent to 121,593 last month and by 6.6 per cent to 294,671 on the year to date.

The Oxford-built Mini gained 5.2 per cent last month with sales of 15,484, but was 4.4 per cent down on the quarter at 32,211.

BMW itself was one of western Europe's star performers last month with a group sales increase of 7.5 per cent to 85,251.

By far the biggest winner, however, was South Korean manufacturer Kia Motors with an 85 per cent spurt which took sales to 24,880 last month, yielding a 1.5 per cent market share.

In contrast, group registrations for the ailing Fiat slumped by nearly 17 per cent in March. Automotive industry analysts said that rising unemployment levels in mainlaind Europe combined with rising petrol prices and the strong euro were draggng car sales down from last year's high levels.

"When you are worrying about something like unemployment, you say to yourself 'maybe I'll save myself some money and not buy something like a car right now'," said Peter Braendle, a fund manager with Swisscanto Asset Management.