MILAN -- A sharpening price war failed to spur European car sales in October, preliminary data from France and Spain showed on Wednesday, though Italian registrations were expected to get a boost from the newly launched Fiat Punto.
Car sales, a gauge of consumer confidence, fell 5.8 percent year-on-year in France, Europe's fourth-largest car market, while Spanish sales tumbled 9.6 percent.
Officials were quick to blame October's falls on extenuating circumstances such as a truck strike and holiday in Spain and a buying hiatus ahead of new model launches, but hints of deeper problems also lurked behind the slowdown.
"This is the worst October for six years (in France), and it reflects a morose economic situation and a difficult car market," said Jean-Pierre Mercier, spokesman for French auto body CCFA.
Many carmakers have cut their prices to lure in buyers, raising concerns that Europe will go the way of the United States, where fierce price wars have slashed away at margins and driven once bellwether companies into loss.
Renault sales fell 11.7 percent in October in its home market, which a spokeswoman put down to people waiting to buy the new Clio III. PSA sales slipped 3.0 percent.
"The Clio is an important model in our line-up, so that had a clear impact," the Renault spokeswoman said.
"We have decided to prefer profitability over sales volume, and that also has an impact, because there have been some aggressive price cuts since this summer by a number of our competitors," she added.
More problems may lie ahead, with industry watchers on the look out for what effect higher oil prices will have on registrations. Some say the need for more fuel-efficient cars will help sales, others expect bigger models to lose popularity.
"We have held client research, and people are saying that higher oil prices are not changing their purchasing behavior. But the overall consumption of fuel is down a bit because people are using their cars more economically," said CCFA's Mercier.
Automakers hope that shiny new models will tempt people to keep buying cars, despite the sluggish European economy.
October was the first full month of sales for the new Fiat Punto in Italy and is expected to have lifted sales in Europe's third-largest car market.
New registration figures in Germany, Europe's largest car market, are due on Monday, Nov. 7, and European sales on Nov. 16.
October's sales drop squeezed France's cumulative sales to 3.6 percent in January-October, down from 4.7 percent in the first nine months of the year. Spanish sales in the first 10 months of the year were up 1.3 percent.
Spanish sales in October were hampered by a two-day truckers strike that prevented new cars getting to dealerships.