SHANGHAI, January 9- Auto sales in China, the world’s biggest car market, surged 13.9 percent to 21.98 million vehicles last year, an industry group said Thursday, with the growth rate outpacing 2012 despite economic weakness.
Sales of passenger vehicles alone jumped 15.7 percent year on year to 17.93 million units, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) said in a statement.
China’s huge auto market is critically important to foreign companies, which have looked to its vast potential to take up the slack from flagging sales in Europe.
In December, sales of vehicles both passenger and commercial rose 17.9 percent year on year to 2.13 million units, it said.
In 2012 auto sales rose just 4.3 percent annually to 19.31 million vehicles, hurt by slowing domestic economic growth, limits on car numbers imposed by some cities to cut pollution and congestion, and a territorial row between Beijing and Tokyo that hit sales of Japanese brand cars.
China’s economy already the world’s second largest registered its worst growth rate for 13 years in 2012, expanding at an annual rate of 7.7 percent.
The economy probably grew 7.6 percent in 2013, state media reported in December, just above the government-set annual target of 7.5 percent.
Japanese brands have continued to recover from the downturn in 2012, when political tensions grew over disputed islands in the East China Sea, causing some consumers to shun their Asian neighbour’s products.
“Although the economic situation was bad in 2013, there were many catalysts for the car industry,” said Cui Dongshu, deputy secretary general of the China Passenger Car Association, another industry group.
“There was strong demand for replacing old vehicles with new ones. Japanese brands also rebounded after their downturn in 2012 as domestic consumers have high regard for them,” he told AFP.
In its figures, CAAM said sales of Japanese brand cars amounted to 2.93 million in 2013, but gave no percentage change.
Some foreign companies have already announced record China sales in 2013.
US auto giant General Motors sold 3.16 million vehicles last year, up 11.4 percent from 2012.
“GM maintained good growth momentum in our company’s largest market, despite a modest slowdown in demand for commercial vehicles,” president of GM China, Matt Tsien, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Competitor Ford sold 935,813 vehicles in China last year, up 49 percent from 2012, as the US company introduced more new vehicles to the market.