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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

China's government today released its monthly report on auto sales. The Chinese bought more cars than Americans did in January for the first time ever. Car companies sold 735,000 vehicles in China, or about 80,000 more than they sold in the US. If the trend continues, this could be the year China surpasses the US as the world's number one automobile market. In a couple of minutes, we'll hear about car culture in China. First, to find more about this news, we turned to an industry analyst in Detroit. Michelle Krebs is with the auto information site Edmunds.com. Good morning.

Ms. MICHELLE KREBS (Senior Industry Analyst, Edmunds.com): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Does this come as a surprise?

Ms. KREBS: It wouldn't be a surprise if this were 2015 or 2017 instead of 2009. We had expected the Chinese to buy more cars than Americans, eventually. But we didn't expect it to happen this early in the game.

MONTAGNE: Well, does this change anything for automakers?

Ms. KREBS: Yes. It shifts their priorities faster. We'll see automakers protecting and upping their investments and resources in growing China while they cut back in other areas. A very good example is Nissan, which just reported its first financial loss in a decade and responded by cutting 20,000 jobs globally. Of those, 60 percent will be cut in Japan and another 20 percent in the US and Europe. Those are more mature markets where car sales have plunged. But it will leave China largely untouched.

MONTAGNE: But are auto sales in China booming? Surely they're slowing down, like sales all over the world.

Ms. KREBS: Exactly. China's January sales were down only 8 percent. The US sales plummeted 37 percent. So their rate of growth is not what it used to be. But we also see tremendous opportunity in those markets.

MONTAGNE: Well, of the nearly 800,000 cars that were sold in China in January, what brands made up the bulk of the sales?

Ms. KREBS: Most Chinese car buyers by cars from Chinese companies that have a Western partner. General Motors and Volkswagen are the biggest players. Buick sells more cars in China than it does in the United States. And then China has literally hundreds of little auto companies. But the ones that do best generally have foreign partners.

MONTAGNE: How close are Chinese carmakers to playing out their global aspirations?

Ms. KREBS: Well, they certainly do have global aspirations, and they've done -made some moves with some fits and starts. We saw one company expand into Europe, but it had - it got terrible publicity because it flunked the crash test. Chrysler had a deal with China's Chery, but that deal fell through. The troubles of the world's best-known automakers may end up being good fortune for the Chinese companies. For instance, it just could be that Ford will sell its well known and highly global brand Volvo to a Chinese company. So we'll have to see on that one.

MONTAGNE: Well, thanks very much for joining us.

Ms. KREBS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Michelle Krebs is a senior industry analyst with the auto information site Edmunds.com.

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