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Renault leads gains in slow European auto recovery

The Renault company logo is displayed on the front of a car dealership in Andernos, Southwestern France, February 12, 2013. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

By Laurence Frost

PARIS (Reuters) - Renault (PAR:RNO), Toyota and Volkswagen led a 0.9 percent November gain in European car sales, according to industry data published on Tuesday, pulling ahead of Fiat, General Motors (NYS:GM) and Ford in a slowly recovering market.

Registrations across the European Union and EFTA trading bloc rose to 975,281 cars last month, the Association of European Carmakers said, paring the region's year-to-date decline to 2.8 percent.

As Europe nears the end of a sixth straight full-year contraction in auto demand, industry leaders such as Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn are hopeful the battered region can return at least to a modest single-digit rate of growth in 2014.

That will do little to relieve the pressure of excess production capacity that has continued to weigh on European operations in 2012, fuelling a profit-sapping price war of unusual ferocity.

Volkswagen (GER:VOW3) and Renault posted respective increases of 0.8 percent and 2.6 percent for their namesake mid-market brands - and bigger gains in no-frills cars - that helped group sales to rise 3.2 percent and 8.9 percent.

The German carmaker, Europe's No.1 by sales, recorded an 18 percent increase at its no-frills Skoda division. Low-cost Renault models such as the Dacia Duster sport-utility surged 30 percent. Toyota <7203.T> registrations rose 6.9 percent.

But automakers that lack new models or a low-cost offering are still suffering.

Sales by Italy's Fiat (MIL:F) tumbled 5.8 percent across the market of 30 European states as demand for its ageing model line-up fades - leading to a further 8 percent contraction so far this year.

Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne has delayed multibillion-euro factory investments for long-promised expansions of the upscale Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands, while pursuing a bitter buy-out dispute with its 58.5 percent-owned Chrysler division's minority shareholder.

GM sales dropped 3.8 percent as both main brands fell. The U.S. carmaker is withdrawing the underperforming Chevrolet badge from Europe to focus on reviving mid-market Opel.

Ford also retreated 2.9 percent last month. In a move designed to lift its brand and margins, the smaller U.S. carmaker is pulling back from loss-making sales to rental companies and other budget-conscious fleet customers, ahead of a coming model offensive for the region.

The company expects western Europe to return to growth in 2014 after bottoming out this year, Ford of Europe CEO Stephen Odell said last month.

(Reporting by Laurence Frost; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)