It's No Picnic For Overseas Auto Makers, Either

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - France's Renault SA and German and Japanese automakers bore the brunt of slowing car sales in March as consumers in Germany and France steered away from showrooms, according to statistics released Friday by manufacturers' association ACEA.

Overall sales were down only slightly by 0.3 percent from a year ago, with Europeans buying 1,822,180 new cars.

But sales in Germany fell by 6.6 percent, in line with larger drops in the past two months as a Jan. 1 increase in value-added tax saw people make purchases before that date.

France also slipped, by 3.8 percent, pulling down stronger results from Britain which bought the most cars last month, sending sales higher by 3.1 percent from a year ago. Italy was up 2.4 percent.

ACEA said sales in western Europe were down 1.0 percent in March even though there was a 13.6 percent climb in the smaller eastern European market.

In March, the main victim among major car manufacturers was Renault, whose sales fell 9.4 percent as a poor performance at its main name brand failed to outweigh strong growth at its lower-cost Romanian-based Dacia division.

Japanese carmakers saw bigger drops - despite the Japanese yen falling sharply against the euro in recent months. Nissan Motor Co. fell 16.6 percent and Mazda Motor Corp. was down 11.8 percent. South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. also decreased by 9.5 percent. None of these companies has more than a 2 percent share of the European market.

German luxury carmakers also suffered. DaimlerChrysler AG fell 6.3 percent and BMW AG's sales dropped 5.4 percent.

U.S.-based General Motors Corp. was also down 1.6 percent on lower Opel sales.

But Europe's largest manufacturer, Volkswagen AG, managed to gain 2.2 percent, selling 341,755 new cars as better sales of Audi, Seat and Skoda compensated for a slight fall in results for the main VW models.

The ACEA's sales figures count new car registrations from 23 EU nations - excluding the island nations of Cyprus and Malta - as well as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.

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