Automobile sales in China rose 4.7 percent in 2015 to 24.6 million, according to data released last week by the Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers. The pace of growth was significantly slower than in past years - a trend that most observers expect is now permanent - but the worlds largest auto market did gain momentum in the final third of the year.
The growth was solely due to sales of passenger vehicles, as commercial vehicle sales declined significantly. Motorcycle sales - which are not included in the automobile sales data - dropped their lowest level in a decade.
Some of the fastest growth was seen in sales of sport utility vehicles and fuel-efficient cars with engines sized 1.6 liters or less.
The remarkable expansion of Chinas auto industry has been one of the main factors in the growth of the countrys massive lubricant market. From 2000 through 2010, sales of passenger and commercial vehicles increased an average of 24 percent annually, and in the following three years, the average growth rate remained above 9 percent.
For more than a year, though, most observers expected that sales growth would slow significantly in 2015. The government has tempered expectations with a steady narrative that the countrys economy has entered a more mature phase that will see more growth in services rather than manufacturing.
The year-end totals that CAAM reported Jan. 12 actually represented a late recovery. Through August, sales were running behind rates of 2014, but the industry enjoyed a significant uptick the final four months of 2015.
Chinas auto market, which passed the United States seven years ago to become the worlds largest, is dominated by passenger cars, which accounted for 86 percent of sales last year. Car sales topped 20 million for the first time, reaching 21.1 million for the year, an increase of 7.3 percent from 2014.
SUV sales shot up 52.4 percent to 6.2 million, meaning that they accounted for a whopping one quarter of all automobiles sold last year. But if interest in this big category of passenger cars is growing, so is demand for small cars with engines of 1.6 liters or less. Their sales increased 10.4 percent to 14.5 million, or more than two thirds of passenger cars. Demand for electric and electric hybrid vehicles increased 340 percent to 331,092.
Sales of commercial vehicles fell 9 percent to 3.5 million units, and most of the decrease involved trucks. Motorcycle sales - which CAAM counts separately from automobile sales - hit a 10-year low, falling 11.7 percent to 18.8 million units. 2015 was the fourth consecutive year of decline for motorcycle sales.
The market share for Chinese brands of passenger vehicles swelled to 41.3 percent, thanks to a 15.3 percent increase in sales to 8.7 million units. Here again, consumption is shifting toward SUVs, of which 3.3 million units were sold - an 83 percent jump from 2014.