Japan March car sales soar, Hyundai saved by overseas demand
* Japan non-mini sales up 78 pct, biggest rise on record
* Easy comparison from disaster-struck month last year
* Hyundai, Kia post global sales rise, tough race at home
* Maruti sales up 3.3 pct, lags Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra
By Chang-Ran Kim and Hyunjoo Jin
TOKYO/SEOUL, April 2 (Reuters) - New car sales in Japan surged in March from a disaster-hit low last year, while global sales for South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co also grew as brisk overseas sales made up for a sharp drop at home.
Sales of new cars, trucks and buses excluding 660cc minivehicles jumped 78 percent to 497,959 vehicles in Japan, marking the biggest monthly gain on record, the Japan Automobile Dealers Association said on Monday. Minivehicle sales increased 60.5 percent to 253,929.
The strong gains came off a low base a year ago, when hundreds of suppliers were crippled by the historic earthquake and tsunami on March 11 in northeastern Japan and forced automakers to suspend or reduce production for months.
"Sales were also helped by the government's reinstatement of subsidies to replace clunkers, which boosted demand for hybrid cars such as (Toyota's) Prius, Alpha and (Honda's) Fit," said Michiro Saito, an official at the industry association.
Toyota Motor Corp's domestic sales doubled to 231,358 vehicles in March, while second-ranked Nissan Motor Co posted a 78 percent rise and Honda Motor Co grew by 55 percent.
For the fiscal year that ended in March, total non-minivehicle sales rose 3.1 percent to 3,064,336 as automakers recovered from the disasters faster than they initially expected and mostly made up for output losses during the second half.
OVERSEAS CHARGE AT HYUNDAI, KIA
Hyundai and affiliate Kia Motors Corp posted firm global sales in March as strong overseas sales continued to mitigate the impact of declines at home.
Hyundai's global sales grew 18 percent despite a 10 percent fall in domestic sales, as demand overseas soared 24 percent. At Kia, global sales rose 7 percent even as domestic sales declined 9 percent.
"The U.S. market is faring better than expected, while the European market is not doing well, but Hyundai and Kia are growing in that sluggish market. Their sales growth will continue in the second quarter," said Eric Choi, an analyst at Shinhan Investment.
Hyundai has said it expects its U.S. sales in March to hit a monthly record, surpassing 65,000, which would mark at least a 5 percent rise from last year. The U.S. auto market is expected to cap the best quarter in four years in March.
Stiffer competition could slow Hyundai and Kia in the United States as Japanese rivals fight back with new models, but analysts expect the momentum to stay steady in Europe with the launch of Hyundai's new i30 compact in March and Kia's planned rollout of the new Cee'd in the second quarter.
Hyundai and Kia are aiming to revive sales in their captive home market with new model launches, even as a free trade deal between the United States and South Korea, which went into effect on March 15, makes U.S.-made cars more price-competitive. South Korea's free trade pact with the European Union went into effect last year.
RECORD INDIA SALES
In India, top carmaker Maruti Suzuki India Ltd saw sales in March rise 3.3 percent, lagging increases at rivals Tata Motors Ltd and Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd, which both posted their highest-ever monthly sales.
Car sales in India were boosted by a rush to buy cars before excise tax hikes announced in the federal budget last month begin to impact prices. Carmakers have said prices will rise by around 1.5 percent as a result.
India's carmakers also benefited from the government's decision not to raise the price of diesel or slap a tax on diesel vehicles. Demand for diesel vehicles has soared and now account for around 40 percent of new cars thanks to subsidies that make the fuel around 50 percent cheaper than petrol.
Maruti, 54.2 percent owned by Japan's Suzuki Motor Corp , sold 125,952 vehicles in March, including 13,228 vehicles for export, in an upbeat end to a disappointing year of widespread strikes at its factories and a slowdown in India's car market.
For the fiscal year that ended in March, Maruti's sales fell 10.8 percent.
High interest rates and rising fuel prices dented the Indian market in the first nine months of the fiscal year, and total industry sales for the full year are likely to outpace last year's sales only marginally.
Tata Motors, which makes the Nano, the world's cheapest car, posted a 20 percent jump in March sales to break the 100,000 vehicle mark for the first time. Mahindra, India's biggest SUV maker, said sales rose 25 percent to their highest-ever level.
Tata, the dominant player in commercial vehicles, said sales for the fiscal year rose 13 percent, while Mahindra's grew 28 percent.