But both Mitsubishi and the Retail Motor Industry Federation claimed sales - particularly fleet sales - were artificially inflated.
W-plate registrations last month reached 401,996 - 8.6% up on a year ago when the launch of the twice-a-year plate registration saw 370,060 registrations. Fleet registrations were 10.3% up at 167,125 (March 1999 151,478). However, day-by-day registration figures reveal that 76,639 vehicles were registered on the final day of March, of which 26,538 units were counted as fleet vehicles and 50,101 as retail. With retail buyers, particularly, said to be 'boycotting' new car sales pending publication of the Competition Commission's New Car Inquiry, Alan Pulham, franchised dealers director of the RMI, said: 'Certain manufacturers have clearly managed to increase their fleet sales in a highly price-sensitive market, artificially inflating car sales volumes in March.'
A Mitsubishi spokesman said: 'Pre-registration by some has become a way of life but it distorts the real sales performance of the industry, sending out all the wrong signals.' Against the so-called 'retail boycott' of new cars, the UK new car market is 3.9% up for the first three months of this year at 660,771 (1999: 635,942). Fleet sales are up 6.4% at 304,190 (1999: 285,946).
But Christopher Macgowan, SMMT chief executive, said: 'Customers are continuing to take advantage of the competitive transaction prices and deals currently on offer. March has been a good month.' And he rejected the 'fiddling the figures' claims, saying: 'These are actual registrations. We don't in any way support the theory that figures are being massaged.'
Figures reveal that on the last day of March, Ford registered 12,409 vehicles out of total registrations for the month of 66,989. Last day registrations for other manufacturers with total registrations for the month in brackets were: Vauxhall 6,519 (49,279), Peugeot 4,457 (34,750), Renault 6,028 (30,080), Rover 4,384 (24,899), Fiat 4,051 (16,127), Mercedes-Benz 2,098 (10,417), BMW 2,155 (14,934), Volkswagen 3,464 (25,316).