UPDATE 1-Growth at Rolls-Royce Motors slows on China 'hesitation'

Thu Jan 10, 2013 10:49am EST

LONDON Jan 10 (Reuters) - Rolls-Royce Motor Cars posted slower annual sales growth in 2012 as demand from wealthy Chinese customers eased, meaning the United States regained its position as the luxury carmaker's biggest market.

Rolls, owned by German carmaker BMW, on Thursday said car sales rose 1 percent to a record 3,575 in 2012 from 3,538 cars a year earlier.

It was the company's third consecutive year of record sales, but the growth rate was well below the 31 percent and 150 percent delivered in 2011 and 2010 respectively, and Chief Executive Torsten Muller-Otvos warned that the group may not be able to achieve another record performance in 2013.

"We can't deliver explosive growth all the time and the luxury sector has certain natural limits," he told Reuters.

"Since the beginning of last year we have seen, not a slowdown, but what I would call a hesitation from Chinese customers such as tycoons and industrial leaders compared to how they were feeling three years ago.

"We have seen explosive growth in China over recent years and we knew this would come to a natural end."

Mainland Europe, including Russia, was Rolls' the third biggest market, followed by the Middle East and Asia Pacific.

The luxury car market has been largely unaffected by the economic downturn, helped by continued demand for premium vehicles from Asia's mega rich. However, mass-market carmakers such as Ford are cutting capacity and jobs because of a slowdown in demand.

Rolls said it had expanded into a number of new markets in 2012, including Latin America. It now has a presence in more than 40 international markets.

"We are globally well balanced now and don't count on one or two regions. It has been tricky in certain southern European markets but growth in other areas has made up for that," said Muller-Otvos.

The firm, which sells most of its cars with some element of bespoke personalisation, is expected to launch a new two-door Ghost model this year and complete the expansion of its plant in Goodwood in southern England.