As car makers and importers reveal how they fared last year, a surprising picture emerges from the statistics

Who buys the most cars in Europe? You will not be surprised to learn that the Germans bought 3.2 million cars in 2003, more than the citizens of any other European country, and by a substantial margin. The UK market - as the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders trumpeted in a recent press release - was a strong second. The British bought a record 2.6 million cars last year, comfortably beating our nearest rivals, the Italians, who bought 2.3 million, and the French, who bought two million. A total of 1.4 million were sold in Europe's fifth most populous country, Spain. As a point of comparison, only about 360,000 new cars found a home in Poland, the largest of the countries due to join the European Union later this year.

So far, so predictable. It is not much of a surprise to find that we play second fiddle to Germany, a country with about 20 million more citizens than the UK, that is also home to autobahns without speed limits and some of the strongest car manufacturers on the planet. The Volk still like their wagens. But it is startling to see that we are buying more cars than those passionate motorists, the Italians, and, dare we admit it, deeply satisfying to beat the French at something at last. Their motor industry went from strength to strength while ours went into apparently interminable decline. They bombarded the market with a succession of irresistibly appealing, stylish small cars such as the Renault 5 and the Peugeot 205. We came up with the Allegro and the Maestro before running out of ideas.

However, there is another intriguing story in all these numbers, at least as far as Europe's "big six" (France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland) are concerned.

Compared with the relevant national population figures, the the car buying league table are rather different. On, this population-based measure, it is not the Germans who are the car-buying champs - at least among the "big six" - but the Brits. As the chart shows, last year, the British bought 43.5 cars per thousand of population, about 11 per cent more than the Germans, who bought just 39.2 cars per thousand.

Indeed, in 2003 the Germans were actually beaten into third place by the Italian car buying public, who bought 39.3 cars per thousand people. The German car companies are still making plenty of vehicles: it's just that other nations are buying more of them. The biggest maker in Europe is still the Volkswagen Group. VW Group sold a massive 2.6 million cars last year, down 2.5 per cent on 2002, but enough to maintain its position as the largest player on the Continent. We can expect VW to consolidate its lead in 2004 as the new Golf 5 starts selling in big numbers and its Skoda, Seat and Audi cousins come on stream.

Here's another surprise. The Spanish, buoyed by their strong economy, are now in the process of overtaking the French at the car-buying game; last year, they bought 33.9 cars per thousand of population, compared with 33.7 for the French. The land of the Seat Marbella comes good.

The figures also provide sobering evidence of the huge gap in living standards between the established EU members and the eastern European countries that will join later this year. The British bought more than four times as many cars in relation to their population as the Poles did in 2003 But, as any recent visitor to Poland will tell you, the gap does not feel quite as large as the bald figures suggest, because so many good second-hand Western cars are sold into the Polish market, especially from neighbouring Germany. Expect the Poles to start catching up quickly as their markets open up and the benefits of Eu membership make themselves felt. Already the traditional Polski Fiat and FSO Polonez cars are becoming a rarer sight in Polish cities.

And the overall European car buying picture does not change much if we include the smaller European nations. The UK is still right near the top - actually ahead of the wealthy Swiss and Scandinavians. But we should bear in mind that the Danes, though prosperous, at least, are hit with some of the heftiest taxes on cars in the western world.

In fact, the UK is only beaten by two of the smaller countries, Belgium and Luxembourg. Belgians bought slightly more cars per head than we did (44.3 per thousand of population), while the wealthy Luxembourgeois, who often top comparisons of this sort, bought an incredible 97.4 cars per thousand of population. Perhaps these two small countries owe their prosperity to their disproportionate share of highly-paid Euro-jobs. Belgium is home not only to the European Commission but also to the ACEA, the Europe-wide trade association for the motor industry, who published most of the car registration data. Likewise, Luxembourg hosts Eurostat, the official European statistics body, whose population data are used for these calculations. Or, just possibly, the Belgian and Luxembourgeois new car sales figures are inflated by their legendarily rich dentists.

Import penetration figures provide a few surprises as well. It is no longer news that imports dominate the British market, although a lot of buyers would probably still be shocked to discover that the UK's top-selling model, the Focus, is an import (many made in Belgium) now that Ford has ended all UK assembly of cars with the blue-oval badge.

It is now more than twenty years since importers took 50 per cent of the British market. MG Rover products hardly feature in the top ten sellers. But who would guess that foreign brands captured 72 per cent of the Italian market last year, up from 69.8 per cent in 2002. The days when every second car on Italian roads seemed to be a Fiat 500 or a 127 seem over. And all despite the obvious attractions of domestically produced Fiats, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Alfa Romeos. Perhaps the position will be reversed as Fiat's attractive new small models such as the Panda establish themselves in the market during 2004. It certainly needs to be: The Fiat Group, with its well-publicised financial problems, suffered a 10.2 per cent fall in sales across Europe last year. Putting the gorgeous Lancia Fulvia prototype into production and offering it in right hand drive form might help a bit.

In France, meanwhile, foreign makes grabbed 40.4 per cent of the market last year, up from 39.4 per cent in 2002. Most brands sold fewer cars in the depressed French market last year, including PSA Peugeot Citroën and Renault. The exceptions were the Koreans and the Japanese, with Hyundai up by 24.5 per cent, Nissan by 32.3 per cent and Toyota by 11.7 per cent. So much for Gallic Chauvinism. Then again, these days, Renault controls Nissan, and Toyota makes the Yaris in France.

Most surprising, a similar position position now prevails in Germany. There, the trade association for car importers, the VDIK, was able to report that its members had captured a record 35.4 per cent of the market.

So, if the figures are real enough, what are the implications? For a start, we need to ditch some of our most cherished motoring stereotypes. Forget Nicole, the stylish Parisian who advertised Renault's Clio to such good effect in the Nineties. It doesn't look like she was in the market for a new car last year unless it was something very small, very cheap and very Korean. A Hyundai Getz, say. Perhaps she's missing the overtime pay since the French introduced their compulsory 35-hour week.

Given that the Clio and Megane achieved top 3 places in the sales charts for Northern Ireland and Scotland last year, in the interests of realism, if not art, any updated Renault ad for the Noughties should probably feature Siobhan from Belfast or Morag from Edinburgh. And stop resenting that businessman in a hurry who almost ran you off the road with his big company Mercedes on your last visit to Germany. Try to find some sympathy instead; the S-class may have gone back when he joined that country's long dole queues.

So, how have the British become the European car-buying champions, and is it all good news?

First, an unflattering possibility; that we buy a lot of cars because our public transport is so bad. Not so, it seems. At about the same time as the SMMT was trumpeting last year's record car sales, the Association of Train Operating Companies in the UK was having a celebration of its own. In 2003, the British railways carried a billion passengers for the first time since 1961, up 30 per cent on pre-privatisation levels, so it seems that the well-publicised failings of the British rail system aren't keeping us off the trains. And it is not as though the UK's crumbling, crowded roads, low speed limits and high fuel prices don't provide an equal and opposite disincentive to car use.

What about our system of age-related registration plates? Does it pressure us into changing our cars more frequently than we need to; artificially boosting car sales here? Certainly, most other countries have "ageless" registrations, but this alone cannot explain our lead. The distorting effects of our system have declined since we switched to a twice-yearly cycle and the age identifier was moved from the beginning to the middle of the plate. At the same time, UK car sales have forged ahead.

Or what about our strong position in the car buying contest being misleading because the Germans, at least in the wealthier West, are really still on top, but their national figures are dragged down by the inclusion of the former East Germany, home of the ghastly Trabant? A bit of straightforward maths shows that this is unlikely.

The East has a population of some 16 million, less than a fifth of the total for Germany as a whole. Only if East Germans were buying fewer than half as many cars per head as their West German cousins could this entirely explain the UK's 11 per cent lead.

So, it seems that the most obvious explanation is also the likeliest. Lowish taxes on incomes, low unemployment and respectable growth mean that we can afford to buy more cars than most of our continental counterparts, a conclusion confirmed by our appetite for ticking lots of boxes on options lists and ordering pricier models such as convertibles. Perhaps our lead will shrink a little as the continental economy picks up, but our 29 per cent advantage over the French, in particular, is so big that it looks more like an entrenched fact of life than a fleeting, cyclical phenomenon.

Much of the indigenous British motor industry has disappeared but, in today's world, the measure of our prosperity is not how many cars we make - but how many we can afford to buy.

WHAT'S HOT ACROSS EUROPE

Britain: Kia Sedona

A Ford - the Focus - is still top. But other brands are making progress. Kia was a big winner last year. Kia can deservedly take pride in a 71 per cent rise in UK sales. MG Rover's UK sales were down 26 per cent in December 2003, compared with the same month in 2002. But across Europe, for the year as a whole, they were down just 2.7 per cent, a better performance than Peugeot, Volvo or Vauxhall/Opel. The facelifted 75/MG ZT should help the company maintain its 1 per cent share of the European market.

Italy: Citroën C3

The Italians' taste for stylish small cars saw the Citroën 3 take the No 3 slot in the national sales charts, behind the Fiat Punto and the Panda, and ahead of the Ford Fiesta (4th), Renault Clio (5th) and Peugeot 206 (6th). That helped Citroen to increase its sales by 45 per cent and claim a 5.8 per cent share. But Mazda, with sales up 94 per cent, was another big winner in Italy last year, but none of its models sell enough yet to make it into the Italian Top 10. Fiat-badged car sales fell by 9.4 per cent.

Poland: Renault Thalia

According to the car-market research firm Samar, Fiat topped the market in Poland last year, taking an 18.4 per cent share. But the Italian company has a long tradition in the Polish market - remember all those rehashed Polski Fiats? Skoda came second, off the top spot by a long margin, with a 12.1 per cent share. Renault took fourth place and increased its sales by 53 per cent last year. Did the Thalia, a strange-looking booted Clio not seen in most of western Europe, help?

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