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Electric cars in China

China keeps crown as top auto market despite slowdown

Government subsidies fueled 53% surge in sales of electric vehicles and hybrids

Geely Automobile Holdings, one of China's leading producers of new-energy vehicles, has seen its market capitalization grow 53-fold over the last decade.

BEIJING -- China remained the world's largest new-automobile market for a ninth straight year in 2017, despite the slowest growth in sales volume since 2011, as rising sales of SUVs compensated for a slump in smaller cars.

Sales climbed 3% to 28,878,900 units, data released Thursday by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers shows. This is 70% higher than sales in U.S., China's closest competitor in market size, and 5.5 times the Japanese figure.

Passenger vehicle sales rose 1.4% to 24,718,300. Sedan sales slid 2.5% to 11.84 million, owing partly to a drop-off from a surge in demand in the latter half of 2016 before the government scaled back a tax break on small cars. Consumers were also increasingly drawn to good-looking sport utility vehicles -- sales of SUVs jumped 13.3% to 10.25 million, making up more than 40% of all passenger vehicles sold.

Nissan Motor and Honda Motor enjoyed double-digit growth after getting a jump on the competition in expanding their SUV offerings, catering to Chinese consumers paying closer attention to performance and exterior design. Six Japanese automakers sold a combined 4.8 million vehicles in China last year -- close to the size of the entire Japanese market.

General Motors, which is vying for the top spot in China, reached annual sales of more than 4 million vehicles for the first time last year thanks to beefed-up lines of SUVs and luxury cars. Though Volkswagen has not yet announced Chinese sales figures for the year, it likely topped the 4 million mark as well.

But Hyundai Motor ceded third place to Nissan amid boycotts of South Korean products in retaliation for Seoul's hosting of an advanced U.S. missile defense system. The South Korean automaker's sales tumbled 36% to 1.14 million vehicles.

Sales of commercial vehicles climbed 14% to 4,160,600. The strength of China's economy has buoyed demand for transporting such goods as coal, and a government crackdown on overloading has prompted shippers to expand their fleets.

"New-energy" vehicles, a category including electric cars and hybrids, saw sales swell 53.3% to 777,000. These vehicles are given special treatment in the license plate lottery and auction systems used by cities including Beijing and Shanghai to ease gridlock, making them an attractive option for urban consumers.

Government subsidies have helped as well. The e5 electric car from BYD, China's top producer of new-energy vehicles, comes with incentives in Beijing equivalent to 30% of the price tag. Cheaper electrics in the 50,000-yuan ($7,685) range are popular -- particularly among retirees -- even in regional cities, said an executive at second-tier Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group, also known as JAC Motors.

The Chinese market for new-energy vehicles is led by domestic early movers with their own brands, such as BYD, BAIC Motor and Geely Automobile Holdings. The government plans to implement sales and production quotas for new-energy vehicles in 2019, eyeing sales of 2 million units in 2020. The market's rapid growth looks set to continue this year as even big international players rush to develop new offerings for Chinese consumers.

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