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Volkswagen, Fiat, Toyota led gain in 2006 European car sales

Volkswagen AG, Toyota Motor Corp. And Fiat SpA led an increase in European car sales last year, winning market share with new models.

Sales rose 0.7% to 15.4 million vehicles from 15.3 million a year earlier, the Brussels-based European Automobile Manufacturers Association said in a statement today. December sales declined 0.3% to 1.07 million vehicles. „The winners last year were clearly Volkswagen and Fiat, who both won market share,” said Marc-Rene Tonn, an analyst at M.M. Warburg in Hamburg. „Growth was minimal overall last year and this is a trend that will continue this year.” Volkswagen increased sales last year with new vehicles such as the Audi Q7 sports utility vehicle and the Eos, while Fiat gained with the Grande Punto subcompact, leading to a 17% increase. General Motors Corp., the world's largest carmaker, PSA Peugeot and Renault SA reported sales and market share declines.

Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen's sales increased 5.3% to 3.11 million cars and sport-utility vehicles. Last year's growth at Volkswagen, Europe's largest carmaker, included a 7.4% increase in the namesake brand to 1.66 million vehicles and a 2.8% gain at the luxury Audi division. The group's market share in Europe rose to 20.3% for the year from 19.4% a year earlier. CEO Martin Winterkorn said in November he aimed to beat the carmaker's current target of nearly quadrupling pretax profit to €5.1 billion ($6.6 billion) in 2008 from €1.1 billion on 2004. Fiat SpA boosted sales to more than 1 million vehicles for the first time since 2004, while market share rose to 7.5% from 6.5% on demand for the Grande Punto. The Alfa Romeo 159 sedan, introduced at the end of 2005, also contributed to the gain. Fiat will release the Bravo compact model early this year.

An improvement at Fiat's premium divisions, including Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari, have helped Fiat's profit. The divisions are strengthening ties with each other by sharing components and sales networks. Toyota, the world's largest carmaker by market value, increased sales in Europe last year by 9.7% to 896,831 units, with market share rising to 5.8% from 5.4% a year earlier. The Toyota City, Japan-based carmaker released new versions of the RAV4 sport-utility vehicle and Yaris small car. Toyota aims to build 4% more vehicles this year, potentially becoming the world's largest carmaker by volume and surpassing General Motors, with popular models such as the Camry and Prius cars. Toyota in September said it expects to sell 1.3 million vehicles in Europe by 2008. Carmakers were helped last year by a 3.8% increase in Germany, the region's largest market, as buyers sought to avoid an increase in the value-added tax in 2007 to 19% from 16%. Unemployment in the Euro-area fell to a record low in November, while business confidence stayed close to a six-year high last month. (Bloomberg)