MG Rover, whose rescue by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation still hung the balance last night, was able to find some crumbs of comfort from another poor sales performance in March.

Group sales fell by just under 17 per cent to 12,545 last month compared with 15,057 in the same month last year, figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders showed.

The beleaguered manufacturer saw sales of its MG and Rover branded cars tumble by nearly 18 per cent to 20,055 in the first three months of the year compared with 24,370 in the same three months of 2004.

Yesterday's headlines figures only confirmed the long term trend that has seen sales slump to about only half the level seen in 2000 when BMW disposed of Rover to the Phoenix consortium headed by John Towers.

But MG Rover was able to extract a few positives from yesterday's numbers, however.

They included the fact that MG sales increased by three per cent in March and were just over ten per cent ahead on the year-to-date basis.

A total of 5,937 MGs left the showrooms last month compared with 5,810 in March '04 while year to date sales totalled 9,540 versus 8,664.

The best selling MG, the Rover 25 - derived ZR, increased its sales by 25 per cent last month, the company said.

In contrast, however, sales of Rover cars fell by 29 per cent in March to 6,608 (from 9,247) and were 33 per cent down on the first quarter at 10,515 (compared with 15,760).

The figures suggest that it is MG that is benefiting from the company's decision to improve the interior specification of all its cars, including offering leather seats as standard right down to the bottom of the range.

"All the MG products are performing relatively consistently and indisputably the ZR is a very attractive proposition," a spokesman said.

The company went on to point out that its share of the British new car market was still hovering around the three per cent mark.

"Overall, we sold more than 12,500 cars last month, which we think is a respectable figure.

"And despite the current media spotlight on the company we have maintained market share in the first three months of the year," the spokesman added.

Overall the British new car market was 5.1 per cent adrift at 442,940 while first quarter registrations fell by 7.2 per cent to 701,506 units, the SMMT said.

Despite that the market is still looking in good shape even though it is off the highs of the previous two years, SMMT chief executive Christopher Macgowan insisted.

"Last month was the second highest March market on record. This is encouraging news. The total was 5.9 per cent higher than the average since we moved to a twice-yearly plate change and a little better than expected.

"After an uncertain start to 2005, March has shown that the new car market is in good shape."