It took a massive recession to make it happen, but China eclipsed the U.S. in auto sales last year and is expected to have a strong 2010. Buoyed by government stimulus, Chinese consumers snatched up 10.3 million cars last year, while total vehicle sales are believed to have reached 13.6 million, according to the China Passenger Car Association.The increase represents a 45% jump in sales. Not surprisingly, Chinese officials beamed. "This is even better than anyone expected," the association's General Secretary Rao Da said at a news conference in Shanghai, according to The Associated Press.

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% China's upbeat sales are in contrast to those last year in the U.S. which, until now, was perennially the world's largest auto market. With sales of just 10.4 million cars and trucks, 2009 year will go down as the slowest U.S. sales year since 1982, when the country was also mired in recession.

U.S. auto sales were kept at bay despite a month-long surge during the summer amid the federal government's truncated "cash for clunkers" program. Sales also picked up late last month as consumers responded to news reports of once-in-a-lifetime deals on General Motors' discontinued Pontiac and Saturn lines.

China's latest sales figures appear strong in part because sales in 2008 slowed to single-digit rates for the first time in a decade, Reuters reported. And while China can expect continued strong growth this year, expectations call for growth of just 10%, as Beijing continues to offer tax incentives for small cars, albeit at reduced levels, the news agency said, citing analyst comments.

Official sales data from China is expected by the country's automobile manufacturer's association next week, Reuters reported, but the 13.6 million figure is in line with analyst expectations.

GM said Monday its sales in China rose more than 67% last year, compared to 2008, to a record 1.83 million units. "The industry outlook is strong and we expect more growth, albeit on a somewhat slower pace," Kevin Wale, president and managing director of GM China Group, told Dow Jones Newswires.

Ford Motor (F) said Thursday sales in China rose 44% last year. The Dearborn, Mich.-based auto maker sold nearly 441,000 vehicles, a 36% increase above 2008 levels. The company's forecasts, however, call for much slower growth this year. "We think there will be something like 8% growth of the market this year," said Nigel Harris, head of Ford's sales and marketing in China, Reuters reported. "Our ambition is to sell more than 8%."

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