Imports overtaking resurgent UK cars: Market share falls as sales bounce back. Helen Kay reports

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The Independent on Sunday THE RUSH for L-registration vehicles has left car makers and dealers in the UK happier than they have been in a long time. Sales have leapt as consumers begin to feel more confident that the recession is over. But amid the euphoria are ominous signs that British manufacturers are losing market share to foreign cars.

New car sales in the first 20 days of August rose by 12.1 per cent, from 290,551 to 325,792, on the same period last year.

Analysts are confident, on this showing, that sales for the month will reach 415,000 to 420,000, though they will still trail the bumper 500,000 achieved in August 1989.

Full details of sales figures have been delayed until the first week of September but it is believed that Ford is in the lead among car makers, with 23.5 per cent of the market. Vauxhall, the UK subsidiary of General Motors, is trailing in second place with 15.4 per cent, while Rover has 10.6 per cent.

Ford has done particularly well. The Escort, Fiesta and Mondeo - in that order - were the top three models sold in the first 10 days of August. Between them they accounted for almost 19 per cent of sales. The Mondeo has proved especially successful, gaining 6 per cent of the market since it was launched as a substitute for the Sierra last March.

Yet traces of recession still remain. Eight of the top 10 models sold in the first part of the month were small cars, reflecting the economic climate and the traditional August bias towards retail rather than fleet sales.

This news has been good for Rover, where the Metro and 200 ranges of small cars have garnered more than 6 per cent of sales this month.

The company has virtually run out of Metros and is now building sold orders - commitments made in advance of supply - to satisfy demand.

But although sales of UK-built cars have accelerated, they are declining as a proportion of the total market. Imports took 58.3 per cent of sales in early August, against 56.8 per cent in the same period last year. Given that production at Japanese-owned UK plants has risen, with a corresponding fall in Japanese imports, the trend is even more pronounced.

Nissan Motor Manufacturing's Sunderland plant made 179,000 cars in 1992, but output is projected to reach 270,000 cars this year. Toyota is expected to make about 30,000 cars at its plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire, after opening at the end of 1992. The increase in production has contributed to a drop in Japanese imports from 10.1 per cent to 8.1 per cent for the first 10 days of the month.

The preference for foreign cars partly reflects the fact that more private buyers enter the market when registration letters change. 'While it may, for example, be company policy to buy British, the public is disloyal. It tends to go where it sees value,' Rob Golding, industry analyst at SG Warburg, said.

The French car makers have proved the biggest foreign winners, with their combined share of the market climbing 2 percentage points to 16.2 per cent. Peugeot sales have stayed flat, at 7.9 per cent, but Renault has been pulling ahead: the Clio is the seventh most popular model.

The Nova has helped the Spanish to boost their share of the market from 5.2 to 7.11 per cent, while imports from Eastern Europe have also risen slightly. However, German car sales have remained flat and Fiat, traditionally weak in the northern markets, has become even weaker.

Interest in diesel engines has also increased, Robert Speed, motor industry analyst at Henderson Crosthwaite, said. He pointed out that the diesel content of the market for the year to date is 16.9 per cent, against 8.8 per cent in 1991.

Neil Marshall, director of economic affairs at the Retail Motor Industry Federation, warned against undue optimism. 'With annual sales predicted to reach 1.73 million, we are still a long way from the 2.3 million achieved in 1989,' he said, adding that anxiety about potential tax changes in the November Budget may drag the market down again.

(Photograph omitted)