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SMMT predicts 2.25m total in 2001 as retail sales rise again

January's rise in new car registrations, following a record December, has fuelled speculation about an all-time high for the UK market this year.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders remains cautious though it is still predicting a full-year figure of 2.25m. Some industry watchers believe a record 2.4m is attainable.

The reason for the SMMT's concern is a drop in the fleet market last month when the overall total was buoyed by strong private sales. December's fleet sales figures rose more than 18% year-on-year but last month they fell 14%.

This was reflected in the sales figures for three manufacturers. Ford remained No1 with 36,069 registrations taking 19.2% of the market, but up by less than 2% over January 2000. Vauxhall at No2 was 15% down with 24,560 sales. MG Rover slipped to eighth selling 7,229 units, down more than 12%.

Overall 187,908 new car registrations were recorded during the month, a rise of 1.55%. SMMT chief executive Christopher Macgowan said: “For the fourth month in a row we have seen a rise in new car sales fuelled by the private sector. Buyers continue to benefit from stronger competition than ever with lower prices, better specified cars and longer warranties.”

Private sales took 46% of the market last month compared to 37% in January 2000. Personal choice by private buyers saw Alfa Romeo almost double sales over the corresponding month last year. It was the brand's best January for 20 years.

Spokeswoman Angie Voluti said: “For the first time since we dropped our prices last April, we have had enough cars coming through to meet demand. We are expecting the trend to continue because we still have the new 147 to come and we are taking a lot of orders.” Alfa's 1,294 sales in January represented an increase of 97.5% year-on-year.

Citroen was up just under 60% with 8,288 registrations and it closed in (with a 4.41% market share) on its target of 5% in the UK. Registrations of the Xsara-based Picasso MPV outnumbered the Renault Scenic and Vauxhall Zafira, last year's sector leaders.

There were 60% plus rises also for Land Rover, Suzuki and Seat. The largest drop was recorded by the South Korean Daewoo whose registrations fell 62% to 966 cars in January as consumer confidence dwindles over uncertainty about the future of the company. There is also increasing difficulty in getting product from its embattled Korean factories.

Its domestic rivals also fared badly in the UK in January. Kia was down 47% having raised year-on-year sales by 80% during 2000. Hyundai fell 24.5%, with 2,011 registrations.

Audi put in a strong January, increasing sales nearly 33% to 3,993 while Renault dropped 23% to 11,356 and was overtaken by Volkswagen. This is largely due to the run-out of old Laguna ready for the new model.

The Ford Focus started 2001 as it finished 2000 by heading the best sellers' list and the new Mondeo moved up to fourth place becoming the best-seller in the upper medium segment. Strong progress also from the Fiat Punto which reached joint seventh place with the Renault Megane.

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