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China's auto sales rebound in April, rising 11.6 per cent as restrictions spur purchases

A man walks past a city ring road clogged with heavy traffic in Beijing Jan. 9, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Andy Wong

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A man walks past a city ring road clogged with heavy traffic in Beijing Jan. 9, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Andy Wong

BEIJING, China - China's auto sales rebounded in April despite slowing economic growth as expectations of tighter ownership curbs to fight smog prompted buyers to rush to make purchases.

Passenger vehicle sales rose 11.6 per cent to 1.6 million vehicles, according to figures released Friday by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group. That was up from March's 7.9 per cent growth.

Sales growth in China, the biggest auto market by number of vehicles sold, has cooled steadily since peaking above 40 per cent in 2009. Sales are forecast to grow by 8 to 10 per cent this year.

The country's economic growth declined to 7.4 per cent in the first quarter after last year's 7.7 per cent expansion tied 2012 for the weakest performance since 1999. The ruling Communist Party's target for the year is 7.5 per cent but officials already have cautioned growth might come in below that level.

Rapid growth in car ownership has left Beijing and other major cities choking on smog and traffic. A growing number are imposing limits on new vehicle registrations, which has prompted a rush to buy in hopes of beating the restrictions.

Earlier, General Motors Co. said April sales of GM brand vehicles by the company and its Chinese partners rose 6.3 per cent to a record for the month of 278,263. The company said that raised the total so far this year to 1.2 million vehicles, the earliest in the year the company has passed sales of 1 million in China.

Ford Motor Co. said sales rose 29 per cent to 96,829 vehicles. So far this year, Ford said, sales are up 41 per cent at 368,150.

Nissan Motor Co., the country's most popular Japanese brand, said April sales rose 14.7 per cent to 118,500 vehicles. Rival Toyota Motor Co. said sales rose 12.4 per cent to 85,800.

China's domestic brands have lagged behind global rivals such as General Motors Co. and Volkswagen AG. And more foreign brands are entering the crowded market: Tesla Motors Inc. delivered its first eight electric sedans to Chinese customers in April.

Sales of Chinese brand autos rose 4.5 per cent in April over a year earlier to 597,000 vehicles, less than half the growth rate for the overall market, according to CAAM. Sales of Chinese brand sedans contracted by 12.9 per cent.

"When customers upgrade their cars, they favour foreign or joint venture brands," said Jia Xinguang, an independent auto analyst.

A popular Chinese manufacturer of SUVs, Great Wall Motor Co., reported earlier that April sales were 59,273 vehicles. That was down about 11 per cent from a year earlier, though sales of Great Wall's H6 SUV rose 71 per cent to 26,368.

"Serious questions will now be asked about Great Wall's growth potential," said Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton in a report.

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AP researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed.

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China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (in Chinese): www.caam.org.cn

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