PARIS/BERLIN Car sales in France and Spain rose for the fifth straight month in January, suggesting the recovery in Europe's autos market is strengthening after a six-year slump.
New vehicle registrations also picked up for the second consecutive month in Italy, Europe's fourth-biggest car market and one of the worst-affected by the economic malaise.
The figures add to broader signs that the European economy is emerging from a protracted period of weakness that weighed heavily on consumer demand, particularly in the region's debt-laden southern countries.
January's sales of new cars in Spain, Europe's No. 5 autos market, increased by 7.6 percent year on year to 53,436 vehicles, car manufacturers' association Anfac said on Monday, helped by government subsidies.
In France, Europe's third-largest car market, new registrations edged up 0.5 percent to 125,477 cars, industry association CCFA said, keeping its forecast for stable to slightly higher car sales in the country this year.
"The European car market is beginning to slowly head in the right direction," said Jonathon Poskitt, head of European forecasting for LMC Automotive, predicting that sales in western Europe will increase by 3 percent to 11.85 million vehicles in 2014.
New car sales in Italy were up 3.24 percent on January last year to 117,802 vehicles, Italy's transport ministry said on Monday.
While the figure suggested that the market may be turning a corner, industry groups urged caution, saying that part of the increase was attributable to car owners finally replacing old vehicles after deferring purchases during the financial crisis.
"In absolute terms, sales of passenger cars (in Italy) remain at levels last seen in the late 1970s," automotive research group Centro Studi Promotor said in a note.
Swedish new car sales surged by 19 percent in January, added Bil Sweden, whose members represent 99 percent of all new registrations in the country.
In France, Renault's (RENA.PA) sales rose 12.4 percent to 34,151 cars, helped by its new Captur mini-SUV and no-frills Dacia models. That lifted the group's share of its home market to 27.22 percent from 24.35 percent.
Larger French rival Peugeot (PEUP.PA), which is seeking a tie-up with China's Dongfeng as its struggles to halt European losses and expand overseas, recorded a more modest 6 percent rise in sales.
Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE), Europe's biggest carmaker, saw its French sales decline 9.1 percent in January to 15,286 cars. Sales by General Motors (GM.N) fell 8.3 percent.
South Korea's Hyundai (005380.KS) and affiliate Kia (000270.KS) reported a combined 27 percent sales drop, but Toyota's (7203.T) registrations rose 10.5 percent.
French delivery van sales fell 7.7 percent to 27,388 vehicles in January, the CCFA said, taking total light vehicle registrations to 152,865, a 1 percent decline.
Europe's top market Germany is due to release January delivery figures on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Gilles Guillaume, Fiona Ortiz and Agnieszka Flak; Editing by Geert De Clercq and David Goodman)