Car sales in western Europe rose for a third straight month in April as new models and brighter economic prospects helped a fledgling recovery, although local manufacturers continued to lose business to their Asian rivals.

According to Reuters, citing a statement by Brussels-based carmaker association Acea, new car registrations rose 4.1% to 1.272 million vehicles in April, bringing the rise so far this year to 3.2%.

Most manufacturers had predicted growth of around 1-2% for 2004, but there are signs that once-thrifty motorists could be returning to showrooms quicker than expected, particularly as demand in Europe’s biggest car market Germany tentatively emerges from the doldrums, the report noted.

While analysts told Reuters the figures beat expectations and pointed to growth of nearer 3% for 2004, they noted momentum was driven mainly by the fast-growing Asian carmakers, meaning domestic players had little to cheer about.

“We shouldn’t read too much into these figures as it’s only really one strong month, but they are a bit stronger than expected,” one London-based analyst told the news agency, adding: “However it’s mostly thanks to the Japanese and Koreans, so it’s not much for the European manufacturers to get excited about.”

Reuters noted that the vehicle industry accounts for about 4% of the European Union’s gross domestic product and reflects the wider economy, in particular consumer confidence.

The report said the figures were based on roughly the same number of business days in both periods, meaning underlying sales rose – in March, sales figures got an artificial boost from fewer holidays than in April 2003.

According to Reuters, Japanese carmakers continued to snatch business from European competitors, swelling their sales by 13% and boosting market share by over 1% to 13.7% in the first four months of 2004, while Korean manufacturers fared even better with a 23.5% jump in sales that took their slice of the pie to 3.7%.

The report said sales in France, Europe’s worst-hit major car market, remained moribund with a dip of 4% in April, while demand appeared to recover in Germany, which showed a rise of 3.4%.

But pain at home continued to hurt French duo Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen, Reuters said, noting that PSA – fighting stiff competition as rivals churn out many new models – saw sales fall 3.3% in March, bringing the fall for the year to 4%, while Renault saw sales dip 0.3% despite new models.

Volkswagen Group – counting on its revamped Golf to muster sales growth — saw sales edge up just 1.6% as its Audi and Seat brands slipped, the news agency said.

Toyota, which last week posted a double-digit percentage rise in annual profits, surged ahead with a 15.4% jump in sales while Fiat, scrambling out of financial crisis, posted an 11.4% jump in new car sales, Reuters added.