First-quarter vehicle sales in the 24 European countries surveyed by WardsAuto trailed year-ago by 5.5% after deliveries fell for a fourth consecutive month in March.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that the results could have been worse given Europe’s struggle with sovereign debt and strict austerity measures that have thrown some regions into economic chaos.

Early results of April’s total vehicle sales show some relief, with the U.K. enjoying a narrow gain from prior-year and France seeing a slight decline after double-digit losses in the first three months. The best some markets can hope for is that losses remain in the single digits for the rest of the year.

Vehicle deliveries in the 24 markets studied through March reached 4.650 million units, down 5.5%, or 273,000 less vehicles than in like-2011.

Despite solid gains by Volkswagen and its Audi luxury division, which together accounted for 20.3% of the market, combined sales of all other European auto makers in the group of 24 regions declined 7.2% in the year’s first quarter. Europe-based auto makers, combined, held a 63.2% share, compared with prior-year’s 64.4%.

Among the U.S.-based auto makers, Ford of Europe deliveries were down 7.4% and General Motors Europe was off 9.3% in the quarter.

Japanese auto makers saw a combined 6.7% loss in first-quarter sales. Among the leaders, Nissan bucked the trend with an 8.6% gain, while Toyota suffered a 6.4% drop. Honda, Mitsubishi and Suzuki recorded large double-digit declines.

South Korean auto makers tried to turn the tide in Europe were with combined sales up 24.1% in the first quarter, including Ssangyong, up 42.6%, Kia up 31.6% and Hyundai, up 17.8%. Market penetration for the three auto makers totaled 6.5% compared with 5.0% year-ago.

Chinese auto makers’ deliveries jumped 68.6% but accounted for only 0.3% of the European market, compared with 0.2% in like-2011.

hstoddard@wardsauto.com