BEIJING — China overtook the United States as the biggest auto market in 2009, and automakers should see more strong growth this year, an industry group reported Friday.
Boosted by Beijing's stimulus programs, 2009 passenger car sales soared to 10.3 million, and total vehicle sales were estimated at 13.6 million, the China Passenger Car Association said. That represents growth of about 45 percent from 2008.
"This is even better than anyone expected," the group's general secretary, Rao Da, said at a news conference in Shanghai.
In contrast, U.S. sales of cars and light trucks plunged 21 percent in 2009 to 10.4 million as a shaky economy kept buyers away from showrooms.
It was the first time any country bought more cars than the United States.
The Chinese group's data were in line with forecasts by J.D. Power and Associates of 12.7 million sales of cars and light trucks and 900,000 bigger vehicles in 2009 for a total of 13.6 million.
"It's very, very strong growth, far beyond the expectations we had in the early part of 2009," said John Bonnell, a J.D. Power analyst.
China's status as the top auto market is yet another sign of its rapid rise as a global economic power. After a two-decade economic boom, it is believed to have passed Germany last year as the biggest exporter and is expected to overtake Japan soon as the country with the second-largest economy, after the United States.
Global automakers including General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Germany's Volkswagen AG looked to China to help drive revenue as demand elsewhere plunged and U.S. automakers laid off workers and shuttered factories
GM said 2009 sales by the company and its local partners in China rose 67 percent last year, while Ford said sales were up 44 percent.
Beijing boosted purchases by slashing sales taxes on smaller, fuel-efficient cars and spending $730 million on subsidies for buyers of SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans. Stimulus spending on building highways and other public works also helped boost sales of trucks used in construction.
China's monthly purchases exceeded those of the United States for all but two months last year.
Rao said auto sales in 2010 could grow by 20 percent as long as China's economic recovery continues and oil prices stay stable. Bonnell said J.D. Power expects a lower but still healthy growth of 6 to 7 percent.