updated 1/13/2010 6:13:00 PM ET 2010-01-13T23:13:00

China has probably passed the U.S. for good as the world's largest auto sales market, General Motor Co.'s top executive in China said Wednesday.

Kevin Wale, president of the Detroit automaker's China Group, said China experienced huge auto sales growth last year and he expects growth to continue, creating a gap that will be too large for the U.S. to close.

Boosted by government stimulus programs, China's total vehicle sales soared 45 percent last year to an estimated 13.6 million, the China Passenger Car Association said. By contrast, U.S. sales of cars and light trucks plunged 21 percent in 2009 to 10.4 million as a shaky economy kept buyers away from showrooms.

The increase is a strong indication of China's status as an economic powerhouse and the rise in personal income among its 1.3 billion residents.

Wale, speaking to reporters at the Automotive News World Congress in downtown Detroit, said he expects Chinese auto sales to grow to 14.5 million to 15.5 million this year, far above analysts' predictions of 11.5 million to 12 million sales in the U.S.

Because of China's huge sales leap last year, Wale said he doesn't think the U.S. will ever regain the lead, although some analysts say the two countries will leapfrog until 2015 when China takes the lead for good.

"It'll grow again next year, which means that the U.S. has to pick up five million in two years to stay in the race," Wale said.

Last year was the worst U.S. auto sales year since 1982 as tight credit, job losses and economic uncertainty kept people from making big-ticket purchases.

GM, which has 14 factories and sells more than 1.8 million vehicles in China in joint ventures with the Chinese government, expects continued growth in the country, Wale said. The company is solidly profitable in China, he said, without giving numbers.

Sales of Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Wuling brands were up 67 percent last year over 2008 figures, and are far above the 32,000 vehicles GM sold there in 2000. GM first started producing Buicks in China in 1998, Wale said.

China is approaching the U.S. as GM's largest market. The company sold just over 2 million vehicles in its home country last year.

Many U.S. buyers have negative impressions of GM brands due to quality problems of the past or because the company was in bankruptcy protection and had to take U.S. government aid to survive.

But the brands, especially Buick, have been well received among China's growing middle class and younger population, Wale said.

The average age of a Buick buyer in the U.S. is 66, he said, but it's half that in China.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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