SHANGHAI — The year of the dragon rolled in with a whimper instead of a roar as Chinese industry data showed Thursday that passenger car sales in the world's biggest auto market fell 24 percent from a year earlier.
The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said 1.16 million passenger cars were sold in China in January, down from a monthly record of 1.5 million a year earlier.
It said total vehicle sales, including trucks and buses, dropped 26 percent from the year before to 1.39 million. Total vehicle sales in January 2011 were 1.89 million.
China's weeklong Lunar New Year holiday, which usually falls in February but began in mid-January this year, was the main reason for the sharp drop. Such factors can play havoc with year-on-year comparisons of data, and sales in February may be similarly distorted, upward.
But the country's once-booming market has been losing steam as the economy has slowed in recent months, with vehicle sales rising a scant 2.5 percent in 2011 to 18.5 million.
In some ways the auto market has mirrored the overall economy, with sales gradually slowing as tax incentives and subsidies enacted to fight off the impact of the financial crisis expired.
Traffic restrictions imposed by Beijing to help reduce emissions contributing to choking smog have also kept some buyers away from showrooms.
Foreign automakers, whose sales have tended to perform better than their domestic competitors, are also feeling the pinch.
General Motors Co. and its joint ventures reported selling 246,654 vehicles in January, down 8 percent from a year earlier, though up 25 percent from the month before.
Ford said it sold 30,976 vehicles in January, down 42 percent from the 53,340 units sold in January 2011.
Both domestic and foreign automakers are continuing to build capacity in China, anticipating strong future sales in this nation of 1.35 billion, where few still own their own cars.
Increasingly, the industry is using factories in China as bases for exports: Although weakness in overseas markets has caused China's overall exports to slow, vehicle sales overseas have surged.
China exported 849,500 units of fully assembled vehicles in January, up 50 percent from a year earlier. Export sales jumped 57 percent to $10.95 billion — a monthly record, the CAAM reported.