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Europe's New Car Sales Rise Only Slightly Last Year

European car sales rose only slightly last year despite economic growth speeding up to the fastest rate since 2000, the manufacturers' association ACEA said Tuesday.

Some 15.36 million vehicles left showrooms in 2006, up 0.7% from the previous year, it said, as stronger sales from Germany and Italy barely compensated for slowdowns in Britain, France and Spain.

Fiat saw the biggest gain, up 16.9 percent after selling 1.15 million cars during the year, but Germany's Volkswagen shifted the most cars overall, sending 3.11 million out on the road - a 5.3% increase.

Toyota Motor also did well, up 9.7% overall and selling 896,831 cars as sales of luxury sedan Lexus surged.

French carmakers fared badly. Renault slumped 11%, selling 1.32 million, and Europe's second-largest carmaker Peugeot Citroen fell 2.1% to 2.02 million sold as car buyers in their home market France kept their wallets shut.

U.S. automakers also failed to cash in, with Ford Motor Co. sales flattening by 0.7% to 1.62 million as Volvo and its high-end Jaguar brand fell slightly. General Motors was down 2.7% to 1.58 million as stronger Saab sales failed to lift weak results from Opel and Vauxhall.

German luxury carmakers reported better news, with DaimlerChrysler up 0.8% for the year thanks to Mercedes. Its small city Smart cars were a disappointment, falling 22% from last year. BMW had similar news, up 1.8% overall thanks to its own-name quality model while Minis were down 11%.

Germans bought more cars than any other European nation, up 3.8% as the economy steamed ahead. Italian sales were up 3.7% but there was bad news from other major markets as Britain's spending slowdown saw a 3.9% drop and Spain fell 2%.

For December, Germans rushed into car showrooms, with sales up 17.7% from last year ahead of a sales tax increase on Jan. 1. The ACEA said this wasn't the only reason and the strong result was also fueled by new products, incentives and better consumer confidence.

Shrinking sales last month in Britain, France, Spain and Italy were caused by buyer uncertainty, fuel price fluctuations, rising interest rates and a lack of new models, it said.

The ACEA's sales figures count new car registrations from 23 EU nations - excluding the tiny island nations Cyprus and Malta - as well as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.

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