UPDATE 2-Japan Dec car sales jump, 2011 total still poor

Thu Jan 5, 2012 2:36am EST

* December non-mini auto sales surge 23.5 pct on weak base year

* 2011 sales drop 16.7 pct y/y, volume falls to 43-yr low

* Govt incentives for green cars look to give 2012 sales boost

TOKYO, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Monthly automobile sales in Japan jumped by more than 20 percent for the third month in a row in December as a low base-year comparison continued to support, but car sales for 2011 dropped to their lowest level in over four decades.

Last March's natural disasters in Japan and recent flooding in Thailand, a major manufacturing base, disrupted production for the nation's carmakers, leading to a sales plunge, but domestic sales have been rising since September following a recovery in production.

Automobile sales in Japan, excluding 660cc minivehicles, rose 23.5 percent in December from a year earlier to 221,960 vehicles, the Japan Automobile Dealers Association said on Thursday.

Sales at top-ranked Toyota Motor Corp, excluding the Lexus brand, jumped 22.0 percent, while those of Nissan Motor Co surged 37.2 percent.

Honda Motor Co, which was hit the hardest among Japanese automakers by Thai floods that cut production across the industry's global supply chain, posted a more modest 6.3 percent gain.

The flooding, along with persistent strength in the Japanese yen and fears of the health of the global economy, have slowed the recovery of Japanese carmakers following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, industry watchers say.

Sales in the 2011 calendar year fell 16.7 percent to 2,689,074 vehicles, which is the lowest level since 1968, the year the survey began, an official with the industry association said.

But car sales momentum from the last few month is set to carry over into 2012 following a government extension of tax incentives for purchases of fuel-efficient cars and a new scheme to subsidize the purchase of clean vehicles.

"There was a sharp rise in the number of people registering for the subsidies in December and we've seen that continue into in January," said an official with the association.

Japanese automakers sought the government's help to stimulate dwindling car sales at home, as they aim to keep a minimum level of domestic production to prevent the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector.

Sales figures for December 2010 were hit as earlier subsidies on fuel-efficient cars expired.

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