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Showroom: March hope is 425,000 units after retail setback

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The industry is this month braced for a year-on-year decline of around 10,000 new car registrations following February’s 3.17% fall to 73,586.

Carmakers can shrug off a sales drop in February, which accounts for each year’s smallest total (3.4% on average). But March is different: registrations will be 2007’s highest, and a manufacturer’s failure to achieve a sales target profitably can affect the whole year’s performance.

The arrival of the 07 plate gives manufacturers a spring focal point for consumer incentives and dealer bonuses, and the SMMT forecasts 425,000 registrations this month. That would be close to the 1999-2006 average for March.

The positive signal is that, after two months, the year-to-date performance is 2.5% up (5,830 units) thanks to the increase in January. That, though, was because January 2006 was weak after a change in diesel company car tax rules had pulled registrations forward into 2005.

High levels of debt and rising interest rates continue to dampen genuine demand – retail sales fell by 8.7% last month – and four-year zero-finance packages are among this month’s incentives.

Manufacturers that do badly in February can point to weakness of demand ahead of the plate change, though a spokesman for Subaru (90 registrations, 55.45% down) was more forthright.

“It’s a tough market, and we have to wait until the end of the year for the new Impreza,” he says. Hyundai (1,028 units, and down 31.97% year-on-year) suffered because of “strategic reasons”, according to its spokesman.

“We are switching from fleet to more profitable retail business, which we believe is a good thing.” Last year, a number of large manufacturers said they stopped or drastically reduced daily hire fleet arrangements that tended to damage residuals. They include Fiat (5.24% up in February), Nissan (4.25% up) and Renault (13.99% down).

Škoda was up 10.35% last month, but that created problems, says Dougal Keith, who heads DM Keith of Leeds. “The increase is largely because the campaign to support Fabia run-out has been so successful we are short of stock,” he says.

“We have our disappointments. We are not selling as many Roomsters as we had hoped, and it looks as though the UK target of 6,000 sales this year will be difficult to achieve.”

Fleet demand nationally grew in January and February, and last month took a record 62.7% share of the total market. Private registrations accounted for 32.9%, and non-fleet business 4.3%. SMMT statistics reveal, so far, all segments show growth apart from dual-purpose and upper-medium, with the biggest gain for superminis (up 11.5%).

Diesel registrations were up 7.1% (6,219 units) year-to-date, with the Ford Focus the best seller in that category and overall.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# The SMMT’s latest registrations forecasts are 2.315m this year (1.3% lower than in 2006), with the total holding steady in 2008.

Top 10 registrations

1. Ford Focus 6,365
2. Vauxhall Astra 5,261
3. Vauxhall Corsa 2,942
4. Ford Fiesta 2,541
5. Volkswagen Golf 2,278
6. Ford Mondeo 2,102
7. Peugeot 307 1,964
8. Renault Mégane 1,700
9. Vauxhall Zafira 1,574
10. Peugeot 207 1,353

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