After a good start to the year the first quarter of 2005 was ultimately disappointing, a 3.34% drop in registrations during March leaving Western Europe's passenger car market 2.12% down YTD.

Jato Dynamics' analysis said last month's tally of 1,681,736 units contributed to a 2005 Q1 total of 3,901,807, some 85,000 fewer than in the same period in 2004 although this may be partly attributable to an early Easter which left fewer working days in the month.

However, the past three months saw a significant reversal of fortunes in the important lower-medium segments. The standard lower-medium category, containing the big players - VW Golf, Ford Focus, GM Astra etc - was up 5.9%, while premium lower-medium models - such as Audi's A3 and BMW's 1-Series - increased by more than 40%. That gave the two segments combined a 26% share of the total market, up from 23% in the first quarter of 2004.

The only other segments to increase volumes so far this year were SUVs, whose month-by-month growth defied the environmental lobby to leave the category up 8.28% for the quarter, and sports cars, which fell away in March but remained 5.35% up on Q1 2004.

Markets

Among the 'big five markets only France (3.8%) and Spain (2.3%) were up in the first quarter, and only France (2.4%) and Germany (0.2%) up for March. Italy had a poor month, falling 8.8% to leave it 6.1% down for the year, while the UK's 2005 decline slowed in March - although 5.1% down on the same month last year, YTD it is now only 7.2% down, an improvement from the 10.55% drop to the end of February.

Brands

There was a change at the top in March, as Opel/Vauxhall took the number one position from Renault. The GM unit was perhaps helped by a Europe-wide test-drive promotion which may have required additional registered vehicles, but Opel/Vauxhall was the only top-10 brand to increase its volumes YTD. Renault held on to the top spot for the first quarter of the year, followed by Opel/Vauxhall, Ford, VW and Peugeot.

In contrast to the top 10, BMW, Audi, Honda and Volvo were all up in March and for the first quarter. Kia remained the fastest-growing volume brand, up 77.4% in March and 62.6% YTD.

Predictably, MG Rover sales fell heavily in Q1, 16.1% down on 2004. However, the MG and Rover brands have had contrasting performances, with Rover falling 26.5% but MG actually increasing by 4.3% in this period.

Models

The VW Golf remained the best-selling car, topping the table for both month and quarter. Behind it the Opel/Vauxhall Astra, Ford Focus and Peugeot 206 were almost dead level for the year, but with very different trends. While the Peugeot is falling away as it nears the end of its product cycle, the Astra is maintaining exceptional growth (68.9% YTD), and the new Focus is also performing very strongly, up 18.2% in March.

Segment highlights

Volumes in the mini segment slipped significantly in Q1, a 7.31% fall in March contributing to a 9.88% drop YTD. The Fiat Panda led the segment. Superminis are currently declining at an increasing rate, a March fall off 9.99% leaving the category 7.35% down at the end of Q1. The 206 led the segment from Ford's Fiesta and the Renault Clio.

The resurgent lower-medium segment is led by the Golf, Astra, Focus, Renault Mégane and Peugeot 307 YTD. Citroën's new C4 was just outside the top five. In the high-selling premium lower-medium category, the A3 and 1-series were followed by the Alfa Romeo 147 and, surprisingly, the Rover 45. The hybrid Toyota Prius continued to establish a strong niche presence, up 117% YTD.

After a strong February, the upper-medium segment fell away in March but finished the first quarter of 2005 only 0.07% down, giving it an increased share of an overall market which has declined YTD. The VW Passat was replaced by the Peugeot 407 in the number one position for the year, ahead of the Ford Mondeo, while Toyota's Avensis displaced the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra for fourth. The premium upper-medium category continued to slide, down 15.72% despite the recent Audi A4 facelift and newly-launched BMW 3-series. These two led the segment YTD from the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Executive car registrations were down 4.92% YTD. The BMW 5-series in first place is gaining acceptance all the time, and was 10.73% up in Q1. With the recent addition of the Avant derivatives, Audi A6 volume grew 37.4% in March, leaving it up 27.0% for the quarter and catching the Mercedes-Benz E-Class for second place. Volumes continued to slide in the luxury segment, and were 24.29% down for the year at the end of March. Mercedes' S-class led Audi's A8 and BMW's 7-series.

Now that the mini/midi MPV segment has matured, it is subject to the same market pressures as other categories, with a sharp fall of 6.34% in March bringing a first quarter decline of 3.24%. Despite this the Toyota Corolla Verso increased sales sharply, up 173% in March and up 109% YTD. The Renault Scénic/Grand Scénic led from the Opel/Vauxhall Zafira, Citroën Xsara Picasso, Volkswagen Touran and Ford Focus C-Max. Full-size MPVs are declining at an increasing rate - March saw a 27.28% fall, leaving the segment down 20.98% for the year, although the Mitsubishi Grandis was up 124% in March and 505% YTD following the announcement of a diesel option. The Renault Espace/Grand Espace continued to lead the segment from the Ford Galaxy and Volkswagen Sharan.

The growing SUV segment continues to be led by Toyota's RAV-4, BMW X3 and Nissan X-Trail. Despite being up YTD, registrations of sports cars are more volatile as they tend to be led by new product, and March saw a 4.86% fall. Mercedes' SLK in the number one spot and its CLK stablemate in third were split by the Opel/Vauxhall Tigra.