The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM), which pegged January sales at 2.81 million, kept its projection for a bleak 3 percent growth this year, same as 2017 but significantly below the stellar 13.7 percent gain in 2016.
The strong growth in January - after several months of tepid gains - should not be taken alone as a "barometer" for the whole year, CAAM officials said. It did, however, extend the market's rising streak to an eighth consecutive month.
CAAM also pointed out that the year-on-year comparison was aided by the fact that the Chinese New Year holiday fell in January last year while it is in February this year, meaning January had a few less working days in 2017.
"We can't really tell from the data if this is a good start yet, we need to wait until the end of the first quarter to see where things stand," CAAM official Chen Shihua said at a briefing in Beijing on Friday.
In 2017, China's auto sales fell short of a 5-percent growth forecast from CAAM, hurt in part by a phasing out of tax cuts on smaller engine cars that began last year.
According to CAAM, sales of new-energy vehicles (NEVs) in January increased 430.9 percent from a year ago to about 38,470 amid a government push to support the sector and shift away from traditional petrol-engine cars in the long term.
CAAM estimates that sales of NEVs, referring to all-electric battery cars and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, will likely grow 40 percent this year versus to top the 1 million mark.
China's finance ministry said in December it would extend a tax rebate on purchases of NEVs until the end of 2020, a boost for hybrid and electric car makers, although carmakers worry that other subsidies will be rolled back.
(Reporting by Pei Li and Norihiko Shirouzu; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Himani Sarkar)
By Pei Li and Norihiko Shirouzu