European car sales fell a sharp 7.4% to just under one million in February, industry data showed today. 

The figures for March, when the full impact of the coronavirus outbreak should be seen, are widely expected to be much worse. 

European car sales totalled 957,000 in February, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA). 

In the biggest markets, sales in Germany were down 10.8%, Italy 8.8%, Spain 6% and France shed 2.7%. 

The downturn reflects strong sales at the end of last year when many people replaced their older, more polluting vehicles before the introduction of new, tighter EU emissions standards this year, ACEA said. 

Higher car taxes coming into effect in 2020 may also have had a similar impact on sales. 

ACEA also noted a broader weakness in the global economy as having a dampening effect, even before the draconian measures being taken to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

The pandemic has seen many top makers - among them Volkswagen, the biggest - suspending production for weeks to come. 

The ACEA was expecting new car sales to drop 2% this year, after six years of gains in a row, but it is almost certain to have to change that forecast.