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India zooms past Germany as fourth-largest auto market

Rising incomes, growing car ownership lift sales to over 4 million units in 2017

Maruti Suzuki India, a subsidiary of Japan's Suzuki Motor, controls nearly half of India's passenger-vehicle market.   © Reuters

MUMBAI -- India overtook Germany last year to become the world's fourth-largest auto market in another sign of emerging countries' growing importance to the industry.

New-auto sales climbed 14% on the year to 322,074 vehicles in December, according to data released Thursday by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. Full-year sales rose 10% to roughly 4.01 million vehicles, an all-time high.

Maruti Suzuki India consolidated its lead in passenger vehicles, which make up 80% of the market. The Suzuki Motor subsidiary's passenger-vehicle sales jumped 15% to more than 1.6 million in 2017, boosting its market share by 2.6 percentage points to 49.6%.

Emerging markets have become a major driver of global vehicle sales. They accounted for more than half the worldwide total for the first time back in 2010, according to IHS Markit, while China has been the world's largest market since 2009.

India has been a standout performer in recent years. Its auto market doubled in size in just a decade, and IHS Markit sees it continuing to expand by nearly 10% a year, surpassing third-place Japan's as early as 2020.

This owes largely to a growing economy that has lifted consumer incomes. Gross domestic product per capita shot up about 70% between 2007 and 2016 to just over $1,700, World Bank data shows.

The Chinese market's meteoric growth began after per-capita GDP topped $3,000. Though India has not reached that level, it has an abundance of first-time vehicle buyers -- mainly in rural areas -- said to make up some 30% of the market. The country also has a young population that is the world's second-largest, at roughly 1.34 billion people.

India's annual GDP growth remained in the 7% range from 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, through the fiscal year ended in March 2017. Though growth looks likely to slip to 5-6% or so this fiscal year as the country adjusts to a new goods and services tax, it is widely expected to pick up again next fiscal year. Inflation has also been relatively tame, hovering in the 1-4% range, giving consumers more buying power.

But road construction has not kept up with the surge in auto sales, leading to chronic gridlock in New Delhi and elsewhere. India will need to build up its infrastructure to support future growth.

Other emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia and Indonesia have had a tougher time, with sales tending to fluctuate with resource prices rather than growing steadily as in China and India. These countries also face the challenge of solidifying their supply chains, including parts, materials and assembly of finished vehicles.

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