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China March auto sales fall 5.2 pct y/y, ninth month of decline

BEIJING, April 12 (Reuters) - China's automobile sales fell 5.2 percent in March from a year earlier, the country's biggest auto industry association said on Friday, marking the ninth consecutive month of decline in the world's largest auto market.

Sales fell to 2.52 million vehicles, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) said.

That followed declines of 14 percent in Febuary, 16 percent in January and the first annual contraction since the 1990s against a backdrop of slowing economic growth and China's crippling trade war with the United States.

Carmakers have been lowering their retail prices in China after Beijing handed out tax cuts to try and spur consumer spending as the economy slows.

New energy vehicle (NEV) sales, however, remain a bright spot, rising 85.4 percent in March to 126,000 units, the CAAM said.

NEV sales jumped almost 62 percent last year even as the broader auto market contracted.

China has been a keen supporter of NEV - pure battery electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrids - and has started implementing NEV sales quota requirements for automakers.

After rolling out a generous 5-year NEV subsidy program in 2016 to support sales and encourage innovation, Beijing recently pledged to phase it out by 2020 and raise standards for vehicles eligible for subsidies amid criticism some firms have become too reliant on the funds. (Reporting by Beijing newsroom, Yilei Sun and Brenda Goh in Shanghai Editing by Jacqueline Wong)