Car yards proved to be one of the more resilient segments of the retail sector last year, according to figures compiled by the Motor Trade Association, with sales of new vehicles topping 100,000 units for only the third time since 1989.

With 100,795 new passenger cars and commercial vehicles sold, sales were 19 per cent up on 2011. New car sales reached their highest level in five years, with 76,871 vehicles sold - a 20 per cent rise, the MTA said.

Spokesman Ian Stronach said the growth last year was off a low base following the global financial crisis, but business had been much stronger than anyone in the industry had expected.

"Forecast growth predictions were easily exceeded, with most segments and the majority of distributors all sharing in the strengthening market."


He said car buyers had been benefiting from the strong Kiwi dollar - which was helping keep retail car prices down - and consumer confidence was being bolstered by rising house prices in many areas.

The entrance of new brands, particularly from China, had helped keep the market competitive, Stronach said.

But although buyers had more makes and models to choose from than ever before, he said the overall rate of new vehicle sales was still well behind that of Australia and the United States, which sell new vehicles at double the rate of this country.

The MTA said new car sales were dominated by Toyota, with the Japanese firm's new Corolla model helping propel the brand's sales to 21,620 units in 2012, giving it a 21 per cent share of the market. Ford was in second place with sales of 11,132 units, giving it an 11 per cent market share, while third place went to Holden with sales of 9,446 units and a 9 per cent share.

Used car sales were down 3 per cent on 2011 at 78,311 units last year, but this was ahead of expectations.

Stronach said the used car market had been affected by new exhaust emissions standards, which had reduced the available pool of vehicles that could be imported from Japan.