China's auto sales sink in March for 9th month

FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2018, file photo, a staff member walks past an auto transport loaded with new vehicles in the parking lot for a local automaker in Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province. The China Association of Auto Manufacturers, reported Friday, April 12, 2019, that sales of SUVs, sedans and minivans in the industry's biggest global market fell 6.9 percent in March from a year earlier. (Chinatopix via AP, File)

BEIJING — China's auto sales fell again in March but the contraction in the biggest global market was smaller than in recent months, an industry group reported Friday.

Sales of SUVs, sedans and minivans in the industry's biggest global market fell 6.9% from a year earlier to just over 2 million, according to the China Association of Auto Manufacturers.

It was the ninth straight month of decline but an improvement over the 17.5% contraction in January and February.

Jittery consumers are less willing to make big purchases amid a tariff war with Washington and an economic slowdown.

The slump comes at an awkward time for global and Chinese automakers that are spending heavily to develop electric vehicles under government pressure to boost sales.

Sales of pure-electric and hybrid vehicles rose 85.4% to 126,000 but accounted for only about 6% of total passenger vehicle sales.

Beijing has promoted electrics with billions of dollars in research grants and buyer subsidies. But subsidies are due to end next year and regulators are shifting the burden to automakers by imposing mandatory sales targets for electrics.

That requires automakers to pour money into developing electric models that can compete with gasoline-powered vehicles.

For the first three months of the year, passenger vehicle sales were off 13.7% at 5.3 million. Sales of SUVs, usually a bright spot for the industry, fell 14.2%.

Last year's auto sales suffered their first decline in nearly three decades, falling 4.1% from 2017 to 23.7 million.

The downturn has prompted suggestions Beijing will cut sales taxes or offer other incentives.

Sales by Chinese brands fell 16.4% from a year earlier to 833,000 vehicles. Their market share contracted by 4.7 percentage points to 41.3 percent.

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