Ford's new Fiesta small car, which is coming to the United States in early 2010, outsold the Volkswagen Golf to become Europe's most popular model in March.
Ford sold 52,805 Fiestas, up 15.5 percent from last March. Golf sales dropped marginally to 46,415, according to JATO Dynamics. For the first quarter, the Golf kept a modest lead over the Fiesta, 119,651 to 113,576.
Total March European sales declined 9.0 percent from a year ago to 1.51 million units. That was the smallest percentage decline since last September, said ACEA, the European auto manufacturers association.
Several European governments have introduced scrappage bonuses -- government incentives to consumers who buy new cars and trade in older models. Such plans helped Germany, France and Italy post gains last month, partially offsetting continued large declines elsewhere.
"We're really seeing the commercial benefits brought about by the new incentives," said David Di Girolamo, head of JATO Consult, in a statement. "It will be important to understand if this is a short-term reaction by consumers or if it will have a prolonged effect on the market."
Although Volkswagen Group and Ford Motor Co. posted March declines less than the overall loss, the only major automaker with a unit sales increase was Fiat group, up 14.3 percent to 137,029 vehicles. BMW Group was down 20.8 percent, and General Motors declined 20.1 percent.
With a 32.0 percent gain to 37,390 sales last month, Hyundai replaced Nissan as one of Europe's top 10 automakers. Nissan's sales fell 34.6 percent to 30,841 units.