Chinese car import growth slowed in the first quarter but the segment was expected to maintain reasonable growth in the next few years.

According to China Daily, customs statistics showed China imported 284,000 vehicles in the first quarter, up 21.7% year on year.

"It's a normal and healthy rate," said Huachuang Securities auto analyst Wang Yanxue. He predicted 20% growth for the full year and 1m plate registrations.

"The growth will be twice the number of locally produced passenger vehicles," Wang added. "The upgrading of China's automobile market and the stable economic environment mean that imports will continue to enjoy reasonable and rational growth over the next few years."

According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, vehicle importers maintained an average year-on-year growth rate of over 30% over the past decade.

In 2011, total import sales reached 1.04m. Of those, 1.01m were passenger vehicles, up almost 30%, 26%age points higher than the growth of total domestic vehicle sales. License plate registration of imports jumped 29% to 830,000 units.

"The sector is now entering a period of structural readjustment, with a growth rate of around 20%," Wang told China Daily.

In 2011, the imported SUV segment surged 35% to 539,000 units, taking a 53.3% share of the import market while passenger cars accounted for 40% and multi-purpose vehicles took 5%.

Although the booming imported SUV segment slowed in the first quarter as some major models were replaced by locally produced ones, and there was a shortage of other models due to version upgrades, Wang said that the SUV segment's market share would remain over 50% in the long term.

CAAM data showed 441,600 SUVs were sold in China in the first quarter, up 18.05%.

The sector accounted for 9% of China's overall vehicle market, and 11% of the country's passenger vehicle sales.

"The increasing demand for multi-functional SUVs and the automakers' engine downsizing strategy as a result of fuel efficiency and emission reduction considerations will help the segment maintain its leadership in the imported sector," said Wang.

Jeep and Land Rover led imports in the first quarter with growth of 567.6% and 127.7%, respectively. They were followed by 111.6% at Porsche where over half of sales came from imported Cayenne SUVs.

According to China Daily, Fitch Ratings said in a recent report that China's high-end vehicle market grew at a faster annual rate between 2006 and 2011 at 55% compared with the mid-market's 23%.

Fitch expects the luxury segment to maintain growth of over 20% in 2012 and 2013, due to the low penetration of luxury vehicles and an expanding upper-middle class.

The surging demand has made China the largest market for Audi, BMW and Lamborghini. It's the second-biggest market for Ferrari and third-biggest for Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.