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Auto Roundup: How These Top Competitors Did in the Increasingly Important Chinese Market

By Daniel Miller – Nov 19, 2016 at 9:52AM

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GM crushes it in China, and the market saved VW's sales. But will it continue to support the automakers' growth stories?

GM continues to excel in China. Image source: General Motors.

China is going to play a critical role if the global automotive industry is to continue growing. Europe is still trying to figure out what's going to happen to industry demand and trade laws post-Brexit, and meanwhile, U.S. new-vehicle sales are plateauing and Donald Trump's surprise presidential victory could throw a wrench into major automakers' plans if he alters current trade agreements.

On the bright side, auto sales in China have been surging in recent months -- but will that continue? Here's a look at how some major automakers performed in the country last month, and what to expect when 2017 hits.

More, more, more!

China's light-vehicle sales surged 20% during October, which marks the fourth consecutive month that sales increased 20% or more compared to prior-year results. SUVs and crossovers definitely pulled their weight in sales, with deliveries jumping 43% to nearly 900,000 units. Sales of MPVs in China also jumped 20% last month, to 231,800 units. Even sedan sales managed to pull a 10% gain to roughly 1.17 million vehicles. The past four months have exceeded the year-to-date sales pace, which is up 15% over the same time period of 2015.

General Motors crushes it

Detroit's largest automaker, General Motors (GM -3.55%), posted a great month, delivering an October record of 345,733 vehicles in China, a 5.7% gain compared to the prior year. October's result actually put GM's year-to-date sales over 3 million, the fastest it had topped that figure in company history.

One of the bright spots for General Motors was its Cadillac brand, which it hopes will continue to accelerate sales worldwide. A rule of thumb is that luxury vehicles generate only about 10% of total sales but represent roughly 30% of profits -- so, having a successful luxury lineup is increasingly essential. Cadillac deliveries more than doubled to 12,502 last month compared to the prior year. While GM's luxury brand has a long road ahead of it in China, it's a great sign to see four months of sales growth topping 50%.

China or bust for VW

At a time when Volkswagen Group (VWAGY -3.80%) is struggling with sales globally due to its diesel emissions scandal, it's salvaging sales thanks to its success in China. Volkswagen's sales in western Europe dropped 8.5%, led by a 21% drop in its homeland of Germany. Its South America sales declined 36% due to weak demand in Brazil, and its U.S. sales dropped 13% year to date through October.

However, Volkswagen's sales in China jumped 19% last month to nearly 278,100 units. Without that surge in China, VW brand deliveries would have dropped 9% in October and would be down 8% year to date, according to Reuters.

Record within reach

Ford Motor Company (F -4.40%) entered the Chinese market well behind its competitors, but it has made extraordinary progress since 2012, when it refocused its efforts in the country. While it still sells a fraction of the number of vehicles in China as its crosstown rival, GM, does, it posted record October sales of 107,618 units -- a 14% gain compared to the prior year.

The Detroit automaker had a number of individual vehicles post excellent gains, including its iconic Mustang, which only recently began selling worldwide, with sales rising 60% last month. Ford's Edge also posted a dramatic 93% gain during the month, and the Explorer posted a strong 30% rise in sales.

With European woes likely to return and hinder profits in the region over the next year or two, look for Ford's Asia-Pacific region, driven largely by China's results, to try to increase sales and profits to partially offset European weakness. On the bright side, Ford and its joint ventures are on pace for the company's best-ever annual sales result in China.

Glass half-empty

On the downside for global automakers that are banking on China to help offset plateauing U.S. vehicle sales, the streak of 20% year-over-year gains could be coming to an end shortly. As sales in China stalled during the summer of 2015, the government stepped in and halved purchase taxes on vehicles with a 1.6 liter engine or smaller. That was easily enough to revive sales through the remainder of 2015 and throughout 2016.

However, it's entirely possible we're witnessing many consumers who were on the fence about purchasing a vehicle in China take advantage of the last couple of months during which the incentive is available, as it's set to expire on Dec. 31. If the government doesn't opt to extend the incentive, or taper it off more slowly throughout the beginning of 2017, automakers could see an instant weakening in demand during the first quarter of 2017. 

Daniel Miller owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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