China overtook the United States as the world's biggest auto market for the first half of 2009 after June sales soared 36.5% from a year earlier, according to official data released on Thursday.

Vehicle sales in mainland China topped 1.14 million units in June, up 36.5% over the figure a year earlier, the fourth month in a row surpassing the 1.1 million units mark, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) said. Passenger car sales hit a monthly record of 872,900 units.

Total sales for the first half of the year rose to 6.1 million, up 17.7% from a year earlier, according to the CAAM, adding that both the auto sale and production figures in the first six months had set a half-year record high.

The CAAM figures showed that passenger vehicle sales volume rose 25.62% year-on-year from January to June to 4.534 million units. Based on the figure, China outpaced the United States, where passenger car sales in the same period plunged to 4.8 million amid an economic slump.

China surpassed US auto sales for five of the past six months. The United States pulled ahead temporarily in May before dropping back with 859,847 cars sold in June.

It was really hard for our auto industry to achieve such a proud result against a backdrop of general gloom in the international auto industry, the association said in a statement.

China, with 1.3 billion people, has long been expected to overtake the United States as the biggest vehicle market. But the US economic slump hastened that process by depressing American sales while China surged ahead.

Global automakers are looking to China to help drive revenues as they struggle with falling demand in North American and other markets.

The association said it was cautiously optimistic about the auto sales on the domestic market in the second half of this year, predicting that China was expected to sell more than 11 million vehicles in 2009, higher than its April prediction of 10.2 million vehicles.

Analyst said US's sales in June, when adjusted for seasonal variations and multiplied to produce an annual rate, were the equivalent of 9.7 million vehicles for 2009. That is down sharply from the 2007 peak of 16 million vehicles sold.

Commercial vehicles such as trucks and buses are a bigger share of sales in China than in the United States or Japan. Some observers say that makes comparing figures from the three markets misleading.

In 2008, Chinese sales included 6.8 million passenger cars and 2.6 million commercial vehicles, according to the CAAM.

General Motors Corp. said its China sales in the first half soared 38% from a year earlier, while GM's US operations were forced to obtain government aid and reorganize under bankruptcy court protection.

Ford Motor Co. said its first-half China sales were up 14%.

China's auto sales weakened in late 2008 as the global financial crisis hit but rebounded after Beijing launched a stimulus package with sales tax cuts, subsidies to trade in older cars and other incentives.