Sales fell despite the new registration plates
UK car sales fell by 30.5% in March, compared with the same month last year, the latest industry figures have shown.
The number of new UK registrations in March was 313,912, down from 451,642 the year before, said the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
The SMMT said the drop was particularly disappointing, given that March is when new car registrations come out.
The government needs to do more to boost confidence, SMMT chief executive Paul Everitt said.
He repeated his call for a car scrappage scheme, in which motorists would be paid for trading in their old cars and buying new ones.
Car showroom forced to change tack
"[It] will provide the incentive needed and the evidence is clear that schemes already implemented across Europe do work to increase demand," he said.
"The UK is the only major European market not to implement a scheme."
Scrappage incentives introduced elsewhere in Europe have boosted sales.
While sales have been falling in the UK, new car registrations in Germany rose 40% in March and in France increased by almost 10%. Both countries have recently adopted scrappage schemes.
However, the UK government has so far rejected the idea, saying it was not sure that it would offer value for money.
The figures came on the day that MOT charges increased, from £53.10 to £54.00 for cars.
The cost of a replacement driving licence, compulsory every 10 years, increased from £17.50 to £20.
Change in tack
Some car dealers say they have been forced to change tack and focus more on the used car market.
Richard Peace, who manages a car dealership in Staffordshire, says out of the 1,000 cars that they carry, only about 50 of them are new.
People are looking for value for money and a car that will suit their needs, he says.
"If they've got a particular vehicle that they want to purchase, they'll actually go down a couple of plates to buy that car."
The motor industry has been suffering from the economic slowdown and a global slump in demand.
The March market highlights the scale of the slowdown, the SMMT said.
In the 10 years since the switch to the twice-yearly plate change, March has typically accounted for 17.9% of annual registrations.
Sales for March fell 4.9% more than the SMMT expected, taking the total number of sales for the last 12 months to 1.93 million units.
The SMMT now believes volumes could slide below 1.7m for the whole of 2009.
Rise in 'minis'
A total of 480,358 cars were sold in the first three months of the year, down from 683,349 in the same period of 2008.
Sales of new cars fell in all sectors with the exception of the smallest cars, known as the mini segment.
Sales of the smallest cars rose 84% in March, following the arrival of new models over the last 12 months.
The Ford Fiesta was the best-selling car for the fifth month in a row.