A 3.9 per cent fall in European new car sales in December meant 2005 ended on a weak note despite a ferocious price war, fresh models and strong showings by most Japanese manufacturers.
And the third consecutive month of waning sales offered scant hope that demand would pick up in 2006 and help relieve pressure on carmakers hit by high prices for energy and raw materials.
Figures published by the European car industry association Acea yesterday showed that sales in the 23 EU and three Efta countries totalled 1.07 million in December compared with 1.11 million in the same month last year.
Total sales last year dipped by 0.7 per cent to 15.22 million units from 15.33 million in 2004.
Acea said the December decline was due in part to a smaller number of working days in almost all European countries. But the figure "also confirms the sluggish market conditions in the last quarter", the Brussels-based organisation added.
Declines in the big markets of Germany, Italy, France and Spain offset a rise in Britain in December.
Almost all Japanese carmakers continued to encroach on European companies' market share last month, while Korean manufacturers had unusually weak showings.
Land Rover was the star performer among British manufacturers with sales 16 per cent up at 5,712 in December.
The Solihull company, which is benefiting from the new Range Rover Sport and the third generation Discovery, sold a total of 77,792 vehicles in total, giving a rise of 9.3 per cent for the year.
Jaguar, which has given up chasing volumes to concentrate on its more profitable higher margin cars, saw its sales fall by 5.5 per cent to 3,160 last month and by 22.2 per cent to 46,185 for the year.
Mini, built by BMW at Oxford, put on an eight per cent spurt in December, selling 8,035 units, giving a gain of four per cent at 129,099 for the year.
But BMW, now the world's biggest luxury car manufacturer, saw its core brand slip by six per cent to 58,591 last month although it ended the year 11 per cent up at 650,428.
Peugeot, which builds the popular 206 at Ryton, fell by 9.5 per cent to 74,875 in December and was six per cent down at 1.13 million on the year. Volkswagen, Europe's biggest carmaker with a fifth of the market, used solid sales at its core VW brand to remain top of the league tables in December, when group registrations edged down just 0.5 per cent to 227,378.
Over the year, however, Seat was the only VW brand to lose ground and the group ended the year 3.2 per cent up at 2.95 million.
Toyota, which builds European-spec versions of the Avensis and Corolla at Burnaston near Derby, was among the Far Eastern gainers, putting on 16 per cent in December at 59,774 and four per cent at 818,101 for the year.
US carmakers who are looking to Europe to help offset their weak domestic position saw December registrations slip but still outpace the market.
General Motors, whose brands include Vauxhall, and Ford ended 2005 in a virtual dead heat with just under 1.63 million vehicles sold in Europe for a 10.7 per cent share each.
GM Europe president Carl-Peter Forster held out hope at the Detroit Motor Show last week that a German economic rebound would help ease downward pressure on prices in Europe this year, but his counterpart at Ford, Lewis Booth, saw little sign of this.
Registrations in the 15 older European Union members plus the three Efta countries fell 3.6 per cent in December to one million, leaving 2005 sales down 0.2 per cent at 14.5 million. ..SUPL: