West European car registrations fell 3.7% year-on-year (YoY) in March according to data released by LMC Automotive.
The selling rate was also down, at 14.1m units a year in March, from 14.9m units a year in February.
Sales were down in the big markets of UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. However, LMC noted some special factors at work in some markets.
In an important month for the UK car market, sales were down by 3.4% YoY, while the selling rate dropped to a lacklustre 2.3m units a year. German registrations were down 0.5% YoY in March, but for Q1 as a whole, sales were marginally higher YoY (+0.2%).
In France, registrations fell by 2.3% YoY in March, pushing the market into negative territory for the first quarter of 2019 (-0.6%, YoY). However, the selling rate remained at a respectable 2.2m units a year and the reduced number of selling days may have played a part. The Italian market contracted by 9.6% YoY in March, with the selling rate slipping to 1.8m units a year. In Italy, sales appeared to suffer from a payback effect in March, having been pulled forward to February to avoid tax increases on higher-emitting vehicles. Meanwhile, the Italian authorities' failure to implement a bonus scheme for electric vehicles in a timely manner also seems to be holding back sales.
For Q1 2019 as a whole, Italian registrations are down 6.5% YoY. Spain saw its seventh consecutive month of YoY decline, by 4.3% in March, while the selling rate stayed disappointingly below 1.2m units a year.
For the first quarter of 2019, registrations in Western Europe as a whole are down by 3.5% YoY.
"The fact that the recent selling rate growth has gone into reverse is certainly a setback, leading us to forecast a virtually flat West European car market for the full-year, with growth of just 0.3% seen," said LMC analyst Jonathon Poskitt. "This forecast also assumes that an orderly Brexit and an easing of trade tensions help to boost confidence in the coming months. Any significant YoY growth is likely to come in the final four months of 2019, when sales were weak in 2018 due to WLTP-related disruption."