[BEIJING] Vehicle sales in China rose 8.1 per cent in the first half of the year, the automakers association said, well ahead of full-year predictions with the industry cautiously optimistic that positive sales momentum will continue.
Vehicle sales growth in the world's largest auto market stalled last year as the economy slowed before rebounding strongly in October supported by a tax cut on small engine cars.
Many industry watchers questioned whether the rebound could be sustained, but analysts say sales so far this year have met or exceeded expectations.
"People are cautiously optimistic," said Godfrey Tsang, a consultant and former vice president for Lexus China.
Sales grew 14.6 per cent in June, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers told reporters on Monday, the highest monthly growth since December 2015.
Reflecting the strong start to the year, LMC Automotive last month raised its prediction for annual growth by 0.4 per centage points to 8 per cent in passenger vehicle sales for 2016.
But other indicators show pressure remains high on dealers. An index produced by the China Automotive Dealers Association to measure inventories sits at the highest level since November.
With fierce competition among dealers, average discounts have been up to 3 per centage points higher in the first six months compared with the same period in 2015, according to Chinese consultancy WAYS.
Analysts said the main uncertainty hanging over the market was whether the tax cut on cars with engines under 1.6 litres would expire or be extended.
If it expires as expected on Dec. 31, consumers may rush to buy cars this year to cash in on the incentive, at the expense of next year's sales, while extending the cut would push down fourth-quarter sales.
The association said last month it favoured making the tax cut permanent to promote fuel-efficient cars.
Association spokesman Chen Shihua said the tax cut would likely be extended if sales do not meet targets in the second half.
"Car sales would be volatile without the tax cut. Looking at H1, small engine cars have been the main driver of sales. If the government suspends this incentive, sales might drop a lot," Mr Chen said.
The association reaffirmed its forecast that overall vehicle sales will grow 6 per cent this year.
But with China's real estate market rebounding, the government will be less likely to turn to car sales incentives to push up GDP growth, said James Chao, Asia-Pacific chief for IHS Automotive.
Presuming the tax cut expires, IHS predicts sales growth will fall to 1.4 per cent next year.