New-car sales in western Europe fell by 53 percent to 774,280 in March, as governments imposed restrictions on movement and commerce to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
Registrations in the first quarter dropped by 27 percent to 2.76 million compared with the same period in 2019, when 3.79 million were recorded, according to figures from analysts LMC Automotive.
January and February sales were already hobbled by a strong push at the end of last year to sell cars with higher emissions ahead of new EU CO2 targets.
"Consumer confidence plummeted in the region and with people's movement limited and dealerships closed, registrations have dried up," LMC said in a note. The company tracks registrations from 17 countries in the region.
LMC said it expects deeper declines in coming months. Restrictions were not fully in place until the third week of March in some countries, so early March sales were at a relatively high level.
Among the five largest auto markets in 2019, sales fell by 38 percent in Germany, 44 percent in the UK, 72 percent in France, 85 percent in Italy and 69 percent in Spain.
The UK had the most sales in March, with 254,684, followed by Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands. The UK usually leads Europe sales for the month of March because it is one of two annual occasions when a new license plate series is issued.
Just 28,326 cars were registered in Italy for the month, which has a population of 60 million -- roughly the same as in Belgium, which has a population of 11.5 million. Italy had 194,465 registrations in March 2019.
Sales figures in other countries showed a wide variance. Finnish sales were virtually unchanged in March, down 0.9 percent, and slowed only a bit in Sweden, which imposed a "soft" lockdown, losing 8.6 percent. But sales in Austria fell 67 percent and 63 percent in Ireland.
The prospects for a recovery are uncertain, LMC said. The company expects to see a relatively fast "V shaped" rebound in sales starting in the second half of the year, but it cautioned that "a longer-lasting contraction of registrations is a very real possibility in the event of extended lockdowns."
"We're operating on a cautious 'V' baseline scenario, but it could also be U-shaped, with activity only coming back in 2021," Pete Kelly, managing director at LMC Automotive, said in a conference call last week. In the worst case, Kelly said, the effects of the pandemic permanently reduce the size of some economies, or what he termed an "L shaped" outcome.
No country has announced a broad lifting of coronavirus restrictions, although Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Norway have signaled that some will be relaxed in the coming weeks.
Government measures meant to ease the burden on the economy could also have an effect on auto markets, LMC said. "Structural challenges that come alongside high unemployment and mounting government debt may quash any meaningful recovery in the near-term," the company said.