China first-quarter auto sales strongest since 2014 despite tax cut rollback

By By Lusha Zhang and Jake SpringFeaturesReuters

China auto sales grew 7 percent in the first quarter, China's automakers association said on Tuesday, with the strongest January-March period since 2014 setting up the world's largest auto market for a better-than-expected year.

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Many in the industry had feared that sales would be weak in the first three months after the government rolled back a tax cut on small engine cars on Jan. 1, contributing to expectations for a slowdown in 2017 sales.

But first-quarter growth outpaced the China Association of Automobile Manufacturer's (CAAM) prediction in January that auto sales would grow 5 percent in 2017, and the market is expected to improve further as the year progresses.

Vehicle sales rose 4 percent year-on-year in March to 2.5 million vehicles, CAAM told reporters in Beijing.

The purchase tax for cars with engines of 1.6 litres or below climbed to 7.5 percent this year from 5 percent in 2016 after the government stepped in to stimulate slumping sales. The tax will rise to the normal 10 percent rate next year.

"We've always planned for the fact that (in) the first quarter there would be payback from the pull forward of sales into the fourth quarter (before the incentive was reduced)," Mark Fields, chief executive of Ford Motor Co , told reporters in Shanghai on Saturday.

"We expect the second, third and fourth quarter to show improvement."

Ford predicts that China's overall auto sales will be flat or down slightly this year, Fields said. The U.S. automaker is due to report its March China sales on Wednesday.

U.S. rival General Motors Co reported last week that its sales in the first quarter fell 5.2 percent year-on-year, with the automaker citing the impact of the tax cut reduction.

Automakers with a steady stream of new models, particularly in the hot-selling sport-utility vehicle (SUV) segment like Japan's Honda Motor Co <7267.T>, continue to lead the market. Honda reported its sales grew 16.6 percent in the first quarter.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Stephen Coates)