SEOUL -- Sales at South Korean car makers, led by Hyundai Motor Co Ltd, jumped 10 percent in April as strong exports more than offset weak domestic sales in a slowing economy.
Racy new models, improved quality and high incentives have helped to make South Korea the world's fifth-largest automobile producer behind the United States, Japan, Germany and France.
The country's five car makers -- Hyundai Motor Co., Kia Motors Corp., GM Daewoo, Renault Samsung and Ssangyong Motor Co. -- sold a combined 348,821 vehicles in April, up 10 percent from 316,942 a year earlier, according to data they issued separately.
Sales at Hyundai Motor, South Korea's largest automaker, rose 14.9 percent in April to 189,286 units, powered by strong exports of the popular Santa Fe sport utility vehicle and the Sonata mid-sized sedan.
Hyundai, 10 percent owned by U.S.-German automaker DaimlerChrysler AG, said exports in April shot up 41 percent to 128,988 units, making up for a 17.7 percent decline in domestic sales.
The South Korean automaker had its best April ever in the United States, where sales gained 8.7 percent from a year earlier to 35,001 units, even as overall U.S. auto sales fell sharply for a fourth consecutive month.
"Hyundai is outperforming the overall market, as its brand marketing and new incentives are taking effect," said Cho Soo-hong, an analyst at Dongbu Securities.
Hyundai has joined a relentless price war in the United States, offering cash rebates and extended warranties for many models in March.
Hyundai ranks seventh in U.S. auto sales with a 2.5 percent market share, just behind Japan's Nissan but ahead of Mitsubishi and Germany's Volkswagen AG.
Analysts were concerned about slowing domestic sales. Many did not see consumer spending rebounding any time soon, despite the end of the Iraq war.
Combined domestic sales at the country's five auto makers fell 14.7 percent to 128,926 units in April, though that was more than matched by a 32.7 percent jump in exports to 219,895.
"Domestic sales are likely to remain weak until the second quarter, as the economy still looks fragile", said Chae Kyoung-sup, analyst at Shinyoung Securities.
South Korean consumer confidence tumbled to a 26-month low in March, sapped by worries over North Korea's nuclear ambitions and a big domestic corporate accounting fraud.
Investors were concerned about internal factors at the auto firms, such as simmering labor disputes and rising inventory.
Hyundai and its competitors face an uphill battle with labor unions. Negotiations over wages and working hours are set to start in earnest this month, and the new government of Roh Moo-hyun is seen as labor-friendly.
"The focus is on how protracted the negotiations will be whether they will lead to a strike," Dongbu's Cho said.
Sales at Kia Motors Corp., a Hyundai affiliate and the second-largest South Korean auto maker, rose 7.7 percent in April from a year earlier, to 99,648 units.
Third-ranked GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co, which was launched after General Motors took over ailing Daewoo Motor Co., said sales last month rose slightly to 37,025 units.
Renault Samsung Motors Inc, one of the country's smallest auto makers, said it sold 10,075 vehicles last month, up 16 percent from a year earlier.
Sales at SUV maker Ssangyong Motor fell 8.9 percent to 12,787 units in April.