Europe car sales suffer biggest drop since 2013

Dalia Fahmy
Bloomberg News

European car sales fell the most in four years in April as the shift of Easter from March reduced buyers’ time for shopping, while registrations in the U.K. were further sapped by tax changes.

With at least two fewer selling days compared with a year ago, industrywide registrations dropped 6.8 percent to 1.23 million vehicles last month, according to the Brussels-based European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, or ACEA. Regional leader Volkswagen AG and fifth-ranked Ford Motor Co. lost market share to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Renault SA, which are attracting customers with sport utility vehicles.

Sales plunged 20 percent in the U.K. after a new vehicle-excise duty went into effect on April 1. That could set the stage for further drops in demand amid the fallout from Britain’s preparations to exit the European Union, including a declining pound.

“Further weaker results are expected in the U.K. through this year, as the economy slows down, car-price rises feed through and the market eases back from a cyclically strong period,” Jonathon Poskitt, an analyst at LMC Automotive in Oxford, England, said in a report.

Car-sales growth is about to slow after three years of consecutive gains, as many consumers have already purchased new autos and buyers in the U.K., Europe’s second-biggest market, begin to feel Brexit’s economic pinch. The Easter holiday’s move into April this year hurt the annual comparison because dealerships had less business.

The April drop was the first decline since October and steepest since a 10 percent plunge in March 2013, the year Europe’s auto market slid to a two-decade low. Demand since then has revived, reaching a nine-year high in 2016. Despite April’s poor performance, sales are set to rise again in 2017, albeit at a slower pace. Economic confidence in countries using the euro was the strongest in almost a decade in April, signaling more consumer spending in coming months.

“Overall conditions remain positive for the full year,” Peter Fuss, a partner at consulting firm EY, wrote Tuesday in a report. “The European car market will benefit from good economic-growth prospects, declining unemployment and continuing low financing costs.”

Volkswagen’s group European sales fell 9 percent, narrowing the German company’s market share to 24.8 percent from 25.4 percent a year earlier, as demand at the namesake VW brand as well as the Audi and Porsche marques dropped more than 10 percent. Ford’s registrations in the region slid 12 percent, while sales for Opel and Vauxhall, the European nameplates that GM is selling to French competitor PSA Group, posted a 13 percent plunge.

Among the top 10 carmakers in Europe, only Toyota Motor Corp., which ranks ninth, posted a sales gain last month. Renault, which makes the Kadjar and Captur SUVs, widened its market share to 10.6 percent from 10.1 percent a year earlier, even with a 2.9 percent slide in demand. Fiat Chrysler accounted for 7.3 percent of the European market, versus 6.8 percent in the 2016 period, as a 52 percent surge at the Alfa Romeo brand following the rollout of its Stelvio SUV partly countered declines at the Fiat and Jeep nameplates.