UK new car registrations last month rose 0.5% year on year and were described as "robust" by motor trade group the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

Supermini (B-segment) registrations rose 4.3% to account for 35.3% of the sales while registrations of new diesel and alternative fuel vehicles grew 7.7% and 14.7%.

The bi-annual registration plate (tag) date identifier changed to '08' on 1 March and changes again to '58' on 1 September.

"March continues to be the biggest month for new car registrations and this year has proved to be better than anticipated," said new SMMT chief executive Paul Everitt.

"We expect 2008 to be a challenging year, but registrations to date are in line with industry forecasts. The latest figures demonstrate the progress made by industry in delivering lower carbon cars and the wide range of opportunities there are for consumers to save money and reduce their carbon footprint."

Year to date volume was off 0.7% to 683,349 units. March sales bettered expectations by over 25,000 units and were 5.9% or 25,321 units up on the 1999-2007 average for the month of 426,321 units, the SMMT noted, adding that the strong monthly result brought Q1 volume" on par with last year's strong level" and 20,000 units ahead of its forecast. SMMT is to review the full year 2008 forecast of 2.345m units during April.

Ford models took the top two slots in March, with the Focus regaining its position as the best selling model in the UK.

March's top 10 also featured five superminis, Ford's about-to-be-redesigned Fiesta being the highest placed, a commendable effort in its swansong model year.

Nissan and Smart were among other brands that did well in March, the SMMT noted.

In his 2008 budget on 12 March the chancellor (UK government finance minister) trimmed the headline GDP forecast for 2008 and 2009, to 1.75-2.25% and 2.25-2.75% respectively, but also revised the outlook for consumer spending.

"At present new car demand and private sales in particular have been resilient. However, with consumer spending predicted to ease from 3% in 2007 to 1.25-1.75% this year, it is prudent to be aware of the possibility for a sudden change in consumers' ability and willingness to sustain new car purchases at current levels," the SMMT said.

"Car sales in March experienced a boost thanks to the number plate change and consumer desire for smaller lower emitting vehicles, but the credit situation is likely to flatten the market over the next few months," added Sue Robinson, director of the RMI National Franchised Dealers Association (NFDA).
 
Noting the supermini domination of the top 10 in March, Robinson said environmental concerns and economic factors may have played a part in this.

"The continuing economic uncertainty, combined with the increasing clamour for lower polluting cars may have influenced buying decisions."

The sales increase seen last month may not last, Robinson thinks.

"Many of the vehicles purchased in March would have been ordered in January and February, before the most recent economic pressures came to bear. Consumers now face even higher household costs and a tighter credit market.

"The Bank of England will announce its intentions for interest rates in April next week. We urge an interest rate reduction to give consumers breathing room."