UPDATE 2-Japan automakers' China sales struggle drags into 2013
* Mazda says Jan-March China sales down 21.5 pct yr-on-yr
* China vehicle sales expected to grow 7 percent in 2013
* Honda shows most resilience, CR-V sales rise
BEIJING/TOKYO, April 3 (Reuters) - Japanese car makers' sales in China in the first three months of the year have yet to recover fully from last year's slump, and foreign rivals are capitalising in a market which expects 7 percent growth in 2013.
Mazda Motor Corp said on Wednesday that it and its partners' sales in China, the world's biggest car market, dropped 21.5 percent in the three months to March from the same period a year ago.
The figures suggest Japanese car companies are likely to struggle in China for some time to come, and early optimism of a fast recovery - Mazda said in November it hoped to be back to normal by the end of March - was misplaced.
Earlier this week, Nissan Motor Co said its sales were down 15.1 percent year-on-year in the three months to March, while Toyota Motor Corp's fell 12.7 percent and Honda Motor Co's decreased 5.2 percent.
"While the year-on-year percentage drop of China sales by Japanese automakers is shrinking, sales are still down by around 10 percent, which shows that they are still struggling in the overall market. We think this will continue this year and into the next year and the following year," said Masatoshi Nishimoto, an analyst at IHS Automotive in Tokyo.
Though the figures have improved since last September, when sales plunged by around 50 percent after violent anti-Japan protests broke out in China in response to a diplomatic spat between the countries, Japanese firms continue to struggle against rivals including Volkswagen AG and General Motors Co.
Japanese automakers' collective share of China's passenger vehicle market fell to 12.5 percent at the end of February from 16.4 percent at the end of last year, according to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
German brands in particular have taken advantage and claim 19.3 percent of the market, up from 18.4 percent. Data for March was not yet available.
GM's sales in the first three months rose 9.6 percent from the same period last year, it said on Wednesday.
Of the Japanese brands, Honda is proving the most resilient this year, partly as a result of the CR-V crossover SUV it launched in 2012.
In the two months to February, overall SUV sales surged 50.2 percent year-on-year, more than doubling the gain of sedan sales, according to CAAM data.
"The new CR-V has been a big help for Honda when many consumers are turning to German, Korean and American brands," said John Zeng, Asia Pacific director of consultancy LMC Automotive.
In the three months to March, CR-V's China sales rose 7 percent to 36,657 vehicles, accounting for a quarter of Honda's overall sales there.
Nissan relies more heavily on China than do its compatriots. It and its partners sold 1.18 million vehicles there in 2012, accounting for 24 percent of its global sales.
Japan's second biggest automaker by global sales has pushed back by one year to 2017 its plan to win 10 percent of the Chinese market, Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn told Reuters last week. It currently has around 7 percent of that market.
The January-March sales results will be reflected in the first quarter of the Japanese companies' financial year that started on April 1, because the business year for their joint ventures with Chinese partners starts in January.
They are expected to announce fourth quarter earnings in late April and early May.