By Tom Mudd In a clear sign that the European economy is suffering from the same slowdown that hit the U.S. last year, registration of new cars in Europe fell sharply in the first quarter of 2001. Overall figures released in April by industry group Assn. des Constructeurs Europens d' Automobiles (ACEA) show a 4.9% drop in new car registrations from the first three months of last year. Of all the automakers operating in the European market, only three saw an increase in numbers registered, according to ACEA numbers. BMW registrations increased by 5.4%, while PSA Group -- which makes Citroens and Peugeots -- had a rise of 5.3% over last year's numbers. DaimlerChrysler Corp. posted modest gains in the first quarter. Asian manufacturers were hit particularly hard. Hyundai Motor Co. suffered a decline of 21.9%, with numbers for Korean automakers overall plunging by 36.6%. Japanese carmakers saw their number of new registrations tumble by nearly 15%. Among European manufacturers, the troubled British marque Rover had the poorest performance, with registrations of new Rovers plunging by 29%. Only three European countries -- France, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom -- saw new registrations rise in the first quarter. The most dramatic decrease came in Iceland, which posted a decline of nearly 40%. Denmark (-28.3%), Finland (-25.7%) and Ireland (-23.6%) also saw car registration numbers fall sharply. Ireland -- home to a technology-fueled boom -- had seen annual registration figures rising for seven years. Last year, Irish registrations jumped by 32% to a record 231,000, nearly four times the number recorded in 1993, when the country was still deep in recession. In Europe's largest economy, Germany, March was a particularly bad month for automakers. Registrations of new cars there fell by more than 35,000 for the month, a decrease of 9.4% from March 2000. Last year, German car registrations fell by 11%, ending six straight years of growth.