Daimler Q1 profit helped by China car demand

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Daimler <DAIGn.DE> posted stronger than expected first-quarter operating profit as its passenger car business was boosted by demand from emerging markets such as China.

Global luxury car makers, from Volkswagen's <VOWG_p.DE> Audi to BMW <BMWG.DE>, have racked up eye-popping sales in China, where a growing army of super-rich is fuelling demand for everything from Gucci handbags to Rolls-Royce cars.

Daimler's Mercedes-Benz Cars unit sold 48,861 cars in China -- now the world's largest car market -- in the first three months of this year, 82 percent more than a year earlier.

First-quarter earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) rose 71 percent to 2.03 billion euros ($3 billion), Daimler said on Friday. That was above the average analyst estimate of 1.99 billion euros in a Reuters poll.

The numbers echo robust results posted by fellow carmakers such as Volkswagen <VOWG_p.DE>, the sector's No.1 European player, which this week blasted through market forecasts, bolstered by emerging markets demand.

Daimler already said in March it expected first-quarter vehicle sales to be up significantly after a strong start to the year, putting it on track to post record sales this year.

Daimler affirmed its full-year outlook, saying it saw 2011 EBIT significantly up from last year.

Daimler expects unit sales of Mercedes-Benz branded cars to reach a record level of more than 1.2 million this year, helped among other by strong sales of its top-of-the-range S-Class model.

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Hans Peters)