SEOUL (Reuters) -- Sales at Hyundai Motor Co. and other South Korean automakers fell a combined 10 percent in January as debt-laden domestic consumers remained reluctant to shell out on new cars, data showed on Monday.
The weak sales, which auto makers said was due in part to a three-day lunar New Year holiday in January, will undermine hopes for a broader economic upturn this year.
The auto sector, which accounts for roughly eight percent of South Korea's gross domestic product, has said its expects 2004 to be a bumper year.
But sales at five auto firms slid 9.8 percent to a combined 277,161 vehicles in January from 283,561 a year ago. Local sales, hit by a crackdown on household debt, tumbled 39 percent to 75,791, eclipsing a 27 percent jump in exports to 201,367 units.
Hyundai Motor, which controls half of the local market, reported an 11.6 percent fall in January sales to 138,278 units, but saw a modest 5.3 percent rise in exports to 100,809 vehicles.
"Fewer working days in January meant smaller auto sales," said Jake Jang, a Hyundai Motor spokesman. "But we are looking forward to a better second quarter after a turbulent first quarter."
Analysts were mixed on the sales outlook, with some pinning hopes on an expected revival in consumption and others cautious as inventories have risen, weakening export prospects.
"A consumption recovery is still on the cards. Sales should improve from the second quarter given an improving economy," said Chae Kyoung Sup, an analyst with Shinyoung Securities.
KIA FALLS, GM-DAEWOO SHINES
Kia Motors Corp., Hyundai's affiliate and the country's second-largest automaker, said January sales slid 20 percent to 57,918 vehicles from 72,151 a year ago. Exports fell 5.3 percent to 42,717.
But GM Daewoo Automotive and Technology, South Korea's third-largest carmaker, said January exports more than tripled to 57,033 units, taking total sales to 64,121 from 29,096 a year earlier.
General Motors and partners took a majority stake in some of the assets of Daewoo Motor in 2002, creating the unlisted GM Daewoo.
Exports of the small-size Kalos and Lacetti sedans to west European countries, where demand for economical vehicles is high, powered GM-Daewoo's sales, a company spokesman said.
Sport utility vehicle maker Ssangyong Motor Co., due to be taken over by a Chinese firm, suffered a 31 percent fall in sales to 9,992 units. It was hit by partial stoppages by its 7,500-strong union, which was protesting the takeover.
The South Korean unit of French auto maker Renault SA posted a 40 percent fall in January sales to 6,852 units.
Unlisted Renault-Samsung, one of South Korea's smallest automakers, offers only two passenger car models, mostly sold domestically. The French auto maker in 2000 took a 70 percent stake in the former automotive unit of the Samsung Group.