Research by UK automakers' trade group, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), shows what it described as "a dramatic shift" in the country's new car market, with hundreds of thousands of buyers changing to cars with lower CO2 emissions.

By comparing road tax bands, which are based on tailpipe CO2, the figures show 60.7% of new cars sold last year fell within the cleanest bands A-D (under 165 g/km) compared with just 43.1 per cent in 2000.

"There has been a noticeable shift in the new car market," said SMMT chief executive Christopher Macgowan.

"This is partly due to concerns about motoring costs [annual road tax is considerably lower for low-band vehicles] and partly because reducing their climate change impact is important to more buyers. However, we should not underplay significant fuel economy and CO2 savings from technological advances in new models, including premium brands."

Recently launched British-built models highlight this improvement. The new Mini Cooper for example, built in Oxford using engines developed jointly by parent BMW and PSA Peugeot-Citroen, is 19% better on fuel economy and 16% on CO2 emissions than its predecessor.

Ford Halewood's Land Rover Freelander2 petrol model - using a Volvo engine - boasts a 10% improvement on fuel consumption and emissions over the model it replaced, while a new range of fuel-efficient diesel models - this time developed and built by a UK-based Ford-PSA JV -  has helped Jaguar cut average tailpipe CO2 by 31.5% since 1997.

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