September's car sales in Italy probably rose well above prior forecasts, but Fiat SpA may not have kept pace, the head of the country's premier automotive research institute said on Thursday, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

Italy's infrastructure ministry will release official September sales figures on Friday, the report added.

Dow Jones said that, according to a detailed but unsourced article in the Il Sole-24 Ore newspaper on Thursday, the overall market is likely to be around 178,000 units, up 7% from 165,200 in September 2002. Earlier this week, a Mediobanca research report predicted the Italian market probably rose 3% year on year, with Fiat brands up 8%, the report added.

"The overall market was probably stronger than Mediobanca thinks, but Fiat probably grew slower than the rest of the market," Promotor head Gian Primo Quagliano told Dow Jones Newswires.

Dow Jones said Fiat, which is targeting a 30% share of the Italian market this year, is unveiling new models this autumn, including the new Panda city car unveiled in mid-September, and some analysts say the September data will be the first chance to see how they are performing.

Fiat executives have said orders are strong for the Panda, the revamped Punto compact, the upmarket Lancia Y city car and two premium Alfa Romeo models, the news agency noted.

"The transition from orders to delivery is not so fast, and owners have to register the cars before they count as sales in the government data," Quagliano told Dow Jones, adding that Fiat's new models, including two premium Alfa Romeo cars, were a hit with the public.

"Friday's data won't be representative for Fiat," he reportedly said. "October will be the hour of truth." He reportedly added that Fiat sales likely grew in absolute terms, even if not as fast as the rest of the market.

According to Dow Jones, Quagliano said the Italian car maker is trying to wean itself off unprofitable "zero-kilometre" sales - in which the dealer offers a discount by selling a new car as a used one - while foreign rivals are offering aggressive price cuts. "Other car makers are using promotions to keep their market share and try to keep the overall volume of the market buoyant," he reportedly added.

Dow Jones said Fiat had a 28.7% market share in September 2002.