By Yilei Sun and Brenda Goh
BEIJING (Reuters) - Auto sales in China plunged an annual 43.3% in March, data showed on Friday, as the world's biggest auto market struggles to get into gear following a prolonged demand slump that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak.
The 21st consecutive month of decline was less steep than in February, when sales dived 79% as the pandemic pummelled demand.
Sales fell 1.43 million vehicles from the same month a year earlier, showed data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM), the country's largest auto industry association.
The number of new energy vehicles (NEVs) sold - excluding those from U.S. electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc - fell for the ninth straight month to 53,000 units, said CAAM. NEVs include battery-powered electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Tesla does not report sales to CAAM.
"If we only consider domestic factors, we believe the industry in the second half of the year should be able to recover to the level of the same period last year," said senior CAAM official Xu Haidong. "But it is still difficult to make up for first-quarter and first-half losses."
Local authorities have been trying to revive sales, with cities that rely heavily on vehicle manufacturing, such as Guangzhou in the south and Ningbo in the east, offering purchase incentives.
CAAM also said a survey of 204 auto manufacturing bases showed a production resumption rate of 99.5% following closures aimed at stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus. It said 86% of workers have returned to work.
The coronavirus has led to the deaths of over 3,300 people since the world's second-biggest economy reported the first cases at the end of last year.
CAAM said auto sales will likely drop more than 10% in the first half of the year, and around 5% for the whole year if the outbreak is effectively contained before April.
China's overall auto sales fell 8.2% last year, pressured by new emission standards in a slowing economy as well as trade tension with the United States.
(Reporting by Yilei Sun and Brenda Goh; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Christopher Cushing)