By Norihiko Shirouzu
BEIJING (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co. and its local partners boosted sales in China by nearly 50 percent last year, nudging past Japanese giants Toyota Motor Corp. <7203.T> and Honda Motor Co.<7267.T> to make big inroads into the world's largest auto market.
For much of the past decade, Ford has trailed Japan's big car makers, but a line-up of new and revamped vehicles, including the top-selling Focus, and a China-Japan territorial spat helped the U.S. company in 2013.
The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker said on Monday that along with its local partners, it had sold 935,813 vehicles in China last year, a 49-percent increase from 2012.
Ford still lags a long way behind General Motors Co and Volkswagen AG which are both expected to announce sales of more than 3 million vehicles in China last year.
Toyota and its two local joint-venture partners sold about 917,500 vehicles in China last year, up 9.2 percent from 2012. Honda's 2013 China volume totaled 756,882 vehicles, up 26.4 percent from 2012.
Industry insiders and experts attributed Ford's surge to its beefed-up product lineup. New in the showroom since late 2012 are a couple of small sport-utility vehicles and the redesigned Focus. It also added the redesigned Mondeo car, a China version of the car marketed in North America as the Fusion, to its lineup.
What also helped Ford was a sales crisis that hit Japanese brands in the fall of 2012 and lingered through 2013.
Violent protests and calls for boycotts of Japanese products broke out across China in 2012 after Japan nationalized two East China Sea islands, known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, by buying them from their private owners. Japanese car makers' sales in China fell sharply as a result.
Toyota and other Japanese companies clawed back sales through 2013 as tensions eased, but Tokyo-Beijing relations could tip again at any time.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month visited the Yasukuni Shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's wartime aggression, which infuriated China and South Korea and prompted concern from the United States about deteriorating ties between the North Asian neighbors.
TOYOTA'S ELUSIVE MILLION MARK
Toyota China sales and marketing executives said key new products, including the redesigned RAV4 Toyota-branded compact sport-utility vehicle which was launched during the fourth quarter, helped it recover much of the ground the company lost after a dispute over a group of islets in the East China Sea fanned anti-Japan sentiment in China.
Now, Toyota said it aims to sell more than 1.1 million vehicles in China this year.
That is a milestone Toyota has been trying to clear since the late 2000s.
A decade ago, Toyota's chief executive Akio Toyoda, who back then ran the company's China operations, and his lieutenants set the "aspirational" goal of selling one million cars annually by 2010.
Also likely to pressure the performance of Toyota and other Japanese brands in China is the surge in sales volume by Ford.
Though Ford surpassed Toyota and Honda in China sales volume, it still has miles to go to break into the China's top-three. The likes of GM and Volkswagen AG are well ahead, and it still has considerable ground to make to catch Nissan Motor Co. <7201.T> and Hyundai Motor Co<005380.KS>.
According to consulting firm LMC Automotive, the Volkswagen Group is forecast to sell about 3.2 million vehicles in 2013 in China, up from 2.8 million vehicles it sold in 2012. GM is also expected to have sold more than 3 million vehicles last year.
Nissan, meanwhile, was aiming to sell 1.25 million vehicles last year. Consulting firm LMC Automotive said Hyundai Group's sales in China last year should have reached 1.64 million vehicles, up from 1.4 million last year.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)