As the global car market went into a financial crisis-induced tailspin in 2008, Chinese demand kept expanding, accounting for one-third of the industry's total growth over the ensuing five years.
Last year, annual sales of passenger cars and minivans remained 9 and 14 percent below their pre-crisis peaks in the U.S. and western Europe respectively, and recovered to 2007 levels in Japan, according to automotive consultancy AlixPartners. Meanwhile, sales in China's market more than doubled to 18.6 million, making it the world's largest.
(Read more: Toyota's China October car sales soar 81%)
"The downturn didn't really happen in China," says Bill Russo, a former U.S. auto executive and Beijing-based industry consultant. "China's share of the global market rose significantly in 2009 and 2010."
Toyota and Honda missed the party. Together with Nissan, the "big three" Japanese auto companies' combined share of the China market crashed from more than one-quarter to just 15 percent in the first half year-on-year.