GM exec: China likely to keep auto sales lead

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DETROIT (AP) — China has probably passed the U.S. for good as the world’s largest auto sales market, GM’s top executive in China said Wednesday.

Kevin Wale, president of the Detroit automaker’s China Group, said China experienced huge auto sales growth last year and he expects growth to continue, creating a gap that will be too large for the U.S. to close.

Boosted by government stimulus programs, China’s total vehicle sales soared 45 percent last year to an estimated 13.6 million, the China Passenger Car Association said. By 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.

The increase is a strong indication of China’s status as an economic powerhouse and the rise in personal income among its 1.3 billion residents.

Wale, speaking to reporters at the Automotive News World Congress in downtown Detroit, said he expects Chinese auto sales to grow to 14.5 million to 15.5 million this year, far above analysts’ predictions of 11.5 million to 12 million sales in the U.S.

Because of China’s huge sales leap last year, Wale doesn’t think the U.S. will ever regain the lead, although some analysts say the two countries will leapfrog until 2015 when China takes the lead for good.

“It’ll grow again next year, which means that the U.S. has to pick up five million in two years to stay in the race,” Wale said. “Got your chips?”

Last year was the worst U.S. auto sales year since 1982 as tight credit, job losses and economic uncertainty kept people from making big-ticket purchases.