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Bruce Kennedy, MoneyWatch

Car sales surged in the U.S. last year, as the automotive industrycame roaring back from the dark days of the recession. But the 15.6million vehicles sold in America last year still lags behindChina, which in 2013 reportedlybecame the first country to sell more than 20 million.

TheChinaAssociation of Automobile Manufacturers says those 2013 salesfigures are a 14 percent increase over 2012's data. And a new reportfrom IHSAutomotive expects passenger vehicle sales in the People's Republicto rise further in 2014, as global and domestic automakers vie for the lucrative nationalmarket.

Accordingto IHS, sedans saw the largest growth by volume in China last year,reaching 7.3 million units and accounting for nearly 47 percent ofthe nation's passenger vehicle market.

Thetop-selling passenger vehicle in China last year was the Ford (F)Focus, with sales of nearly 403,000 units, up 36.2 percent year-to-year. Thenext best-selling model was the Volkswagen Lavida, followed by theBuick Excelle, produced by General Motors (GM).

ButVolkswagen claims the title of top brand in China by volume saleslast year. IHS says the German automaker sold nearly 2.4 millionunits in China in 2013, up 16.9 percent from a year ago. South Korea'sHyundai was next in sales, followed by Japanese automakers Toyota(TM) and Nissan,with GM in fifth position.

Andthe carmakers expect even more growth. The website China Briefing, which focuses on business information fromthe People's Republic, reports that car ownership remains relatively lowin China, with about 120 million cars in a country of 1.4 billionpeople - or less than 100 cars for every 1,000 persons.

Comparethat to the U.S., which according to some estimates about 800vehicles for every 1,000 persons, although other reports saythat number is actually much higher.

"Forthose working in the auto industry, the only country they should knowwhere sales are still robust is China," Hubertus Troska, presidentof Daimler China, told China Briefing.

IHSAutomotive says international automakers are creatingmodels specifically for the China market. And Japanese companies suchas Toyota, Honda (HMC)and Nissan are making a concentrated push to capture more of theChinese auto market by expanding their brands and increasing marketpenetration.

Despite this push, there may be one thing that can kill Chineseconsumers' new love affair with cars -- the nation's growing airpollution problem.

"Inrecent years... cars have become so popular that they are evolvingfrom aspirational symbols of the good life to a daily necessity,"ShanghaiDaily editor Wan Lixin wrote in a recent column published by thestate-runXinhua news agency.

ButWan also criticized recent attempts by some Chinese officials todownplay the significance of auto emissions in China'sgrowing air pollution crisis.

"GivenChina's importance to major carmakers and Chinese dependence oncars," he added, "any proposal to discourage car use, if broachedat all, must be tactfully watered down so as not to incur badfeelings."

"Thislatest attempt at whitewashing cars came at a time of wholesaleenvironmental degradation, particularly damning in the form ofpervasive smog," Wan continued. "There is a crying need forprompt and collective action in addressing the issue."



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