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Toyota Surges as European Car Sales Rise in January

Japan's Toyota Motor Corp boosted European car sales by more than a fifth in January, overtaking DaimlerChrysler and helping the overall market edge up 1.1%, industry data showed on Thursday.

Fiat also extended its winning ways with a 5.2% gain in new car registrations, while Japan's Nissan Motor and its French partner Renault saw sales continue to decline.

Overall new car registrations climbed to 1.29 million units in January despite a 10.5% drop in Germany -- normally the continent's largest car market -- after a three-point hike in German value-added tax rates at the start of the year.

Gains in Italy, Britain, France and Spain helped take up the slack, as did a sharp upturn in central Europe, Brussels-based carmakers group ACEA said.

"While the EU15 market stagnated (+0.1%), new EU member states' registrations surged by 16.6%," it pointed out, adding that calendar quirks had flattered sales in some markets by adding an extra working day.

The data cover EU members except Malta and Cyprus plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

Toyota group registrations advanced 20.5% to 82,404 units, paced by 20.5% growth at the Toyota brand but with premium arm Lexus not far behind at 19.8%.

Including Russia and Turkey, European sales of its Yaris small car leaped by more than a third in January, while its RAV4 compact sport utility vehicle boosted sales 174%, a company spokesman said.

Pulling Ahead of DaimlerChrysler

Toyota monthly sales pulled ahead of DaimlerChrysler, whose registrations fell 2.3% year on year. A 2.3% gain in Mercedes-Benz brand registrations could not offset a drop of nearly half in Smart brand sales ahead of the launch of its second-generation two-seat car.

DaimlerChrysler shares nevertheless rocketed up more than 5% to their highest level since May 2002 on Wednesday's news that it was reviewing all options for its loss-making Chrysler division that could lead to a sale or spinoff.

The stock was up 5.1% at 54.13 euros by 0833 GMT while the DJ Stoxx European car sector index gained 2.2%. Daimler is the heaviest-weighted stock in the index, which itself is nearing a 10-year high.

Fiat saw brisk growth at its core Fiat brand and at Alfa-Romeo while Lancia sales firmed.

U.S. carmakers had a good month. Ford Motor group registrations grew at twice the market rate, helped primarily by its premium brand Volvo, which swelled 23%. Ford brand sales edged down, while Jaguar and Land Rover slumped.

Brisk demand for Opels and Vauxhalls plus double-digit growth for the entry-level Chevrolet brand helped General Motors registrations move up 7.6% despite weaker Saab sales.

Market leader Volkswagen's strong run in 2006 ran out of steam. Its group registrations slipped 3.8% in January, led lower by a 9% fall at the Volkswagen brand. Skoda registrations gained 14%.

Renault's market share retreated to 8.0% from 8.7% a year ago as registrations fell 7.5%. That put it behind Fiat, whose share moved up to 8.7% thanks to new models and a strong month in its home market of Italy.

Nissan registrations dropped 11.5%, taking its share below 2 percent ahead of a new model offensive.

South Korean manufacturers had a mixed month, with Hyundai registrations up 2.8% but Kia down 7.3%.