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BEIJING - China surged past Japan last year to become the world's No. 2 vehicle market, behind the United States, as car purchases by newly affluent drivers jumped 37 percent, China's auto industry association said Thursday.

The announcement highlighted China's lightning evolution from a "bicycle kingdom" into a major auto market. Foreign producers are racing to open factories and target a growing urban middle class.

Struggling U.S. automakers General Motors and Ford have gotten a boost from double-digit sales growth in China.

"There's money here and people spend that money on cars," said Michael J. Dunne, vice president for Asia-Pacific for auto research firm J.D. Power and Associates. "The Chinese government has made no secret of its intention to develop a car culture and a car industry. All of the forces are working together."

China's overall vehicle sales, including trucks and buses, rose 25.1 percent to 7.2 million last year, China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said. Passenger car sales rose to 3.8 million, it said.

Japan's total vehicle sales last year came to 5.7 million units, said the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. U.S. sales totaled 16.5 million units, according to research firm Autodata Inc.

The Chinese car boom is driven by economic growth that is estimated to have reached 10.5 percent last year.

The officially endorsed car culture has changed China's landscape almost overnight, with ancient city centers bulldozed to make way for broad avenues and the government spending heavily to build a nationwide highway network. Big cities are ringed by car dealerships.

The car craze has taken a toll in smog and congestion. China has most of the world's 10 dirtiest cities, and air quality is worsening as car exhaust increases. Rush-hour traffic crawls in Beijing, Shanghai and other urban centers.

The top-selling car was the Jetta, made by FAW-Volkswagen Co., a joint venture.

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