Fiat was the major gainer among the volume carmakers in April's weak European car market as the manufacturer benefited from the continued positive impact of the recently introduced Grande Punto.

Most other carmaking groups posted declines on year-ago sales in a weak April market that was further eroded by fewer working days than in the same month last year.

The official new car sales figures released by the European carmakers' association ACEA confirmed earlier provisional market decrease estimates.

Total new passenger car registrations in Europe (EU23 + EFTA) in April 2006 were put at 1,266,242 units, a decrease of 7.3% (and 7.4% in the EU15) over April 2005. ACEA said that this drop was expected, as the Easter break this year fell in April; the month had two working days less across the whole region and three days less in Germany, Spain, Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

Cumulative figures for Europe (EU23 + EFTA) for car sales in the first four months show the market at 5.4m units - just 0.6% ahead of the same period last year.

The five main European national markets reported a loss in April: Spain (119,394 units; -10.5%), the United Kingdom (163,216 units; -9.1%), Germany (284,873 units; -8.9%), France (181,647 units; -6.7%) and Italy (185,244 units; -6.3%).

Fiat Group's European sales in April reached 97,420 units, 12% ahead of the same month last year. The four-month cumulative figure for Fiat Group is 425,509 units - 15.7% ahead of the same period last year. Fiat's strong performance in Europe this year belies its recent status among European volume makers as the poorest performer facing financial crisis.

Earlier this month the company posted its second quarterly trading profit in a row and its improved financial performance was attributed largely to new models - such as the B-segment Fiat Grande Punto - which have helped it to outperform both the European and Italian markets this year.  Fiat's automotive unit is also being helped by the impact of the full rollout of the Alfa 159. Alfa Romeo's European April sales were up 9.7% on the year-ago level to stand at 12,523 units. However, Lancia was off 11.8% on last year.

Among the other volume carmakers, April's results mainly showed volume declines on last year. Market leading Volkswagen Group was 3.1% off last year's pace at 255,953 units (four-month cumulative 1,041,993 units; up 8.4%); of VW Group's brands, Volkswagen was the best performer, boosted by strong sales of the Passat.

Renault and PSA both saw market share declines in April, as did Ford and GM and all four have lost share in the first four months (though Ford can at least point to a strong performance at Land Rover - first four months' sales up 15.5% to 3,142 units helped by the introduction of the Range Rover Sport).

April was a generally quiet month for the Japanese makers in Europe though troubled Mitsubishi stood out as a poor performer with sales of 7,956 units some 28.2% down on the same month last year, reflecting the dropping of the Space Star model.

By contrast, Toyota's luxury car division Lexus almost doubled European sales in the first four months (okay, coming off a low base) to 13,058 units on the back of a raft of new and recently introduced products.

Dave Leggett