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Economy

Southeast Asian auto sales off to smooth start in 2017

Thailand, Philippines log double-digit growth for January

Toyota shows off a new model at a launch event in Indonesia this January.

JAKARTA -- New-automobile sales climbed 5% on the year to 249,729 vehicles in six key Southeast Asian markets this January, growing in all except Vietnam, industry figures show.

Indonesia's tally rose 1% to 86,252, continuing an uptrend that began last April. "We expect sales to recover mildly," said a senior official at a local industry association. Growth of 3-4% to around 1.1 million units is projected for 2017.

Low-cost green cars have been a key driver of the Indonesian auto market. With many motorcycle owners upgrading to the environmentally friendly vehicles, some as cheap as 100 million rupiah ($7,490), automakers are moving to respond. Toyota Motor and Daihatsu Motor released low-cost green cars in the highly popular seven-seater category last August.

In Thailand, a market second only to Indonesia's, January sales jumped 10% to 57,254 units. But this owed much to a year-earlier plunge of 13% on the introduction of taxation based on carbon dioxide emissions -- a step that pushed up prices, especially on large vehicles.

Thais had curbed spending after King Bhumibol Adulyadej's death this past October. But now, some believe that they began loosening their purse strings again after the 100 days of mourning came to a close.

In the Philippines, January auto sales jumped 24% to 33,785 units. With incomes continuing to rise and consumer spending holding firm, more people are buying their first cars. The Toyota Vios and Hyundai Motor's Accent have been selling well.

But Vietnam's sales took a sharp turn in January, dropping 13% to 20,232, after having grown dramatically last year. Commercial vehicles led the decline, largely on last year's strong sales of low-priced trucks and buses from the nation's own Truong Hai Automobile.

Some point out that Vietnamese consumers and businesses are putting off auto purchases, knowing that prices will likely drop next year once import duties on vehicles and parts drop to zero under the tariff-free regime of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Malaysian sales held basically steady at 44,667 units in January.

In Singapore, sales climbed 7% to 7,539 vehicles.

The Asian Development Bank sees Southeast Asian economic growth accelerating to 4.6% in 2017. With consumption expected to recover mildly on the expansion, auto sales will likely remain firm overall.

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