China’s New Year holiday, which normally falls in February, came early in 2012, skewing year-over-year comparisons in the world’s largest market, and dragging monthly global vehicle sales below like-2011 levels for the first time since June 2009.

The downturn came despite strong growth across the Americas and in several other large markets, as auto makers delivered 5.9 million vehicles worldwide in January, a 5.1% dip from like-2011.

The end of the 31-month stretch of uninterrupted global growth came as vehicle sales fell 13.3% in the Asia/Pacific region.

Deliveries rose 26% in Japan, where the market continues to feed pent-up demand caused by last spring’s tsunami-related production interruptions. In India, the region’s third-largest market, sales jumped a healthy 10%.

But in China, a weeklong holiday made seasonal comparisons all but meaningless. Sales plummeted 26.6% from like-2011 – the nation’s largest year-over-year decline in at least five years. Auto companies registered slightly fewer than 1.4 million deliveries for the month, compared with nearly 1.9 million year-ago.

Asia/Pacific sales accounted for 44.4% of global vehicle demand, four fewer market-share points than the region claimed in like-2011.

China likely will experience an opposite spike in year-over-year sales in February, due to the unusual number of selling days in the market this month.

In Europe, vehicle deliveries fell 3.3% in January, with volume accounting for 24.1% of the worldwide total.

Russia, the region’s fourth-largest market, saw sales rise 21.8%, marking the 22nd consecutive month of double-digit growth coming out of the country’s deep recession in 2009.

However, vehicle sales were down across much of the rest of the region, where worries about the financial future of the European Union have slowed the overall economy. Each of the remaining four top-5 markets was down, including No.1 Germany, where demand plunged 16.5%.

All three North American countries posted strong months, lifting the regional total 12.1%.

U.S. sales climbed 12%, on 935,000 deliveries, while Mexico deliveries rose 9.7% and Canada outperformed year-ago by 16.4%. The region accounted for 18.8% of global sales, compared with just 15.9% in January 2011.

A 9.6% spike in Brazil to a volume of 268,270 vehicles, paired with an 8.6% uptick in Argentina, helped lift South America sales 8% over year-ago, giving the region a 7.1% share of the global total.

jsousanis@wardsauto.com