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Brazil auto sales grew 15 pct in 2018, despite slump toward the end

(Updates with details of auto sales categories)

By Marcelo Rochabrun

SAO PAULO, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Sales and production of Brazilian automobiles grew last year, cementing the industry's recovery from a deep recession despite the sector's sluggish performance in the final months of 2018, the national automakers' association said on Tuesday.

According to data from Anfavea, as the association is known, Brazilian sales of cars, buses and light and heavy trucks rose by 14.6 percent in 2018 while production was up by 6.7 percent.

Brazil was one of the world's five biggest auto markets until a recent downturn and remains a major base of operations for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Volkswagen AG , General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co.

Auto sales in South American's largest economy nonetheless remain 33 percent below a peak achieved in 2012, even though 2018 marked a third consecutive year of growth.

Antonio Megale, president of Anfavea, told reporters on Tuesday that the group predicts slightly slower auto sales growth of 11.4 percent in 2019 but an increase in production growth to 9 percent.

Exports to the economically struggling Argentina, the biggest foreign buyer of Brazilian cars, have been a recurrent headache. As such, Megale said 2019 will be a "very complex year" for exports in general, with Anfavea is forecasting a 6 percent drop in exports this year after an 18 percent decline in 2018.

"Still, exports represent only 22 percent of sales," Megale said, "and we had some positive results in Chile and Colombia, which are growing."

Sales of cars and light trucks totaled 2.5 million vehicles, with growth strongest at Volkswagen, which boosted its sales in the segment by 35 percent from 2017.

General Motors Co. sold the most cars and light trucks, accounting for 16 percent of new vehicles in the category during the year. That represented a 10 percent increase year-over-year for GM.

None of Brazil's biggest automakers posted sales drops in 2018, Anfavea data showed.

The most recent monthly numbers showed that automobile sales in Brazil grew by 1.6 percent in December from November, while production fell by 27.4 percent, Anfavea. (Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)