Weak results in Britain, France and Spain pushed new car sales in Europe down 2.6% in October despite fierce discounting and a wave of new models, industry data showed on Wednesday.

Excluding purchases in the new EU member states in eastern Europe, the sales data marked the weakest October since 1996, Reuters reported.

Breaking a four-month run of year-on-year gains, new car registrations in 23 European Union countries plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland fell to 1.16 million vehicles even though Germany – the continent’s biggest market by far – grew again, the report noted.

“With a number of working days that was substantially the same (with the only exceptions Germany and Slovenia, which had one less trading day), this figure points out to market conditions that remain uncertain,” car industry group Acea said, according to Reuters.

It reportedly cited a decelerating British economy, amid higher interest rates and steep fuel prices, and the impact of strikes in Spain. Analysts also pointed to the faltering British market – Europe’s second-biggest – as a dead weight on the sector.

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According to Reuters, the October decline brought 10-month sales across Europe to 12.98 million units, 0.3% below the same 2004 period.

Sal Oppenheim analyst Patrick Juchemich told the news agency he would not be surprised to see western European car sales dip in 2005 before a planned rise in German VAT rates in 2007 helps turnover in 2006.

“We have a weak neutral rating for the sector. Based on the fact that we are running versus a strong fourth quarter last year and that order intake throughout the industry in October was on the weak side, I would not bet too much on the auto sector in the weeks to come,” he told Reuters.

Juchemich told the news agency exchange rates remain a wild card. “If the dollar enjoys a further rally this might change the whole picture,” he said.

According to Reuters, most Asian carmakers turned in solid numbers. Registrations of Kia Motors vehicles grew nearly 18% in October and almost 53% in the year to date, cementing its role as the fastest-growing brand in Europe.

Suzuki registrations swelled by a third and Honda gained 17.6% last month, but Nissan Motor sales dropped by a third.

Reuters noted that Volkswagen bucked the trend by boosting registrations 2.9% in October to secure a 21% market share.

DaimlerChrysler also extended its rebound as a strong showing at Mercedes-Benz offset weaker sales at its Smart minicar brand, the report said.

Reuters noted that BMW had a rare stumble, with October registrations off almost 8% though comparisons were difficult as October 2004 was the first full month of availability for its 1-series compact car and the 2-litre diesel version of its X3 offroader.

Fiat group sales were off 5.3%, with the Fiat brand down 3.4% even though October was the first full month of sales for the redesigned Punto, the report said.

Renault registrations dropped 11.5% even though it launched its redesigned mid-size Clio III – voted European car of the year this week – in September, Reuters added.

The news agency said that US car makers that are depending on Europe to take up the slack of their weak domestic market had a disappointing month – General Motors‘ registrations fell 6.1% while Ford’s numbers eased 1.6%.

According to Reuters, the data from Brussels-based ACEA showed registrations in the 15 older EU members plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland slipped 2.6% in October to 1.11 million units, leaving sales in the first 10 months up 0.3% at 12.37 million cars.