In contrast to the US, where Ford, General Motors and independent analysts are now forecasting a 15m-unit year, European sales appear to have stayed in the doldrums in March.

According to Reuters, forecaster LMC Automotive sees this year's sales dropping 3.1% in western Europe to 11.4m vehicles and its earlier industry output forecast predicted a 3.7% decline.

March was particularly bad because it contained fewer working days than a year ago, industry groups in France and Spain told the news agency.

French car sales fell 16.4% in March and 14.7% overall in the first quarter, according to industry body CCFA.

The March decline also reflected a smaller number of days than in the year earlier period. Adjusted for these calendar effects, French car registrations fell 12.5% last month and 12% in the first quarter.

Spanish car sales fell 13.9% year-on-year in March, deeper than a 9.8% fall in February as a seasonal effect undermined a government subsidy scheme to stimulate the sector, car manufacturers association Anfac said.

"The company car sector continues to be very worrying and continues to register falls of over 20%," David Barrientos, head of communications for Anfac, said in a note cited by Reuters.

March is traditionally the strongest month of the year in Germany but an industry source told the news agency two fewer working days versus last year's period meant that, if anything, the decline was likely to have deepened from February's 10.5% drop.

"We're looking at a double-digit drop at least, maybe around 15 or 16% for March," the source said.

"It's not that the fundamentals are bad, when you look at the forecasts from economic institutes for Germany. But the last few weeks in Cyprus make people feel insecure for the longer term, even if they themselves don't have any immediate fears about losing their jobs."