Carmakers start 2011 strongly

TOKYO/PARIS Tue Feb 1, 2011 8:28am EST

TOKYO/PARIS (Reuters) - Carmakers are making a strong start to 2011, soothing concerns about slower demand growth in Asian markets and a bumpy recovery in western markets.

South Korea's Hyundai Motor (005380.KS), the world No. 5 player, said global sales rose 14 percent in January. Indian vehicle manufacturers reported sales rises of between 14 and 22 percent, and world No. 1 seatbelts-to-airbags group Autoliv (ALV.N) predicted a North American recovery would help sales this year.

French passenger car sales data out on Tuesday showed a rise of 8.2 percent year-on-year in January to 185,603 units, as the last effects of France's scrapping scheme continued to boost the figures. The scheme ended in December but cars bought with the bonus can be registered until March.

Nevertheless the growth in China and India that has sustained carmakers is now seen cooling off, while an uneven recovery in advanced markets such as the United States and Europe remain a concern, analysts say.

"There won't be any surprises until March," said Flavien Neuvy, head of the automobile industry research department at French consumer credit organization Cetelem, referring to the French market.

"The question will be afterwards. Between April and September there will be a lot of uncertainty."

U.S. MOMENTUM FADING

U.S. auto sales lost momentum in the final weeks of January, auto executives and a leading analyst cautioned on Monday, setting the stage for a softer start to 2011 than expected when automakers report January sales later on Tuesday.

But Chrysler was upbeat when it published financial results on Monday even though Ford results disappointed last week.

"Hyundai posted firm sales despite concerns that its China sales would fall sharply because of the end of tax subsidies... Now the focus is its U.S. sales figure," said Yoon Phil-joong, a Samsung Securities analyst.

Hyundai and its affiliate Kia Motors (000270.KS), which outperformed their overseas rivals during the economic downturn, are set to report strong sales and earnings this year, driven by improved brand image and quality and new models, analysts said.

Hyundai saw its global sales jump 14 percent in January, fueled by robust sales of the Sonata sedan and the Elantra compact, while Kia sales rose by a third.

JAPAN DROP TAMED, SPAIN A DARK SPOT

New auto sales in Japan, excluding 660cc minivehicles, fell 21.5 percent in January, declining for the fifth straight month after subsidies to replace older cars expired.

But the pace of decline slowed from the previous two months and an industry official said the drop was relatively tame, noting sales volume in January represented a 7.4 percent rise from the same month two years ago.

"In December, sales posted a big drop so we were a bit worried, but the decline was limited to 21.5 percent," said Michiro Saito, general manager at the Japan Automobile Dealers Association, noting new and refreshed models such as Toyota Motor's (7203.T) Vitz subcompact and Nissan Motor's (7201.T) Serena minivan may have helped.

Saito, however, said it was too early to conclude Japanese automobile sales had hit a low. "For that, we will have to see a recovery in the real economy."

Spain, where incentives ran out in July, and a weak economic outlook and high unemployment are hurting spending power, was another dark spot, with January sales down 23.5 percent year-on-year.

INDIA GROWTH SLOWS

Maruti Suzuki (MRTI.BO), India's top carmaker, posted a 14.7 percent rise in January car sales -- its slowest pace of monthly growth since March as rising interest rate and higher fuel costs crimp demand for automobiles in Asia's third-largest economy.

Tata Motors (TAMO.BO), which makes commercial vehicles and cars, including the ultra-cheap Nano, reported a 15 percent rise in January sales. Utility-vehicles maker Mahindra & Mahindra (MAHM.BO) said sales rose 22 percent last month from a year ago.

Auto sales in India grew a record 31 percent in 2010, driven by a burgeoning middle class, but hike in interest rates, and rising fuel and vehicles costs are expected to slow sales growth this year.

(Additional reporting by Gilles Guillaume in Paris, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul and Sumeet Chatterjee in Mumbai; Editing by Vinu Pilakkott and Andrew Callus)