Toyota soared ahead in China's burgeoning car market by more than doubling its sales in the first nine months of the year.

A relative newcomer to a country previously dominated by General Motors and Volkswagen, the Japanese group sold 203,300 cars between January and September putting it on track to hit its 2006 target of 278,000 units.

That outperformed even the 105.5 per cent growth in nine-month sales reported by Ford this week.

Toyota sold 33,000 vehicles in September alone, up 188 per cent from the same month last year.

Its performance was helped in part by the introduction of its Chinese-built Camry saloon, which has been the best-selling car in the US in eight of the past nine years.

"At this speed, Toyota could topple GM as the top foreign auto seller in China as early as in 2008," said Zhang Xin, a senior industry analyst with Guotai Junan Securities.

GM, which sold 453,832 vehicles in China in the first half of 2006, has not released results for the first three quarters.

Ford sold 114,685 units in China in the same period, while Volkswagen moved 524,558 vehicles, up 28.7 per cent from a year earlier.

Toyota, the world's second-largest carmaker, also vastly outshone a 34 per cent gain in China's overall passenger car market, where 455,539 units were sold from January to September, according to figures provided by a Shanghai automotive association.

That figure encompassed cars as well as sport utility vehicles and MPVs. Official data has yet to be released.

Globally, Toyota is expected to overtake GM as the world's number one player soon. It has already overtaken Ford in the US market in recent months.

While advancing aggressively in North America, Toyota is also expanding at break-neck speed in China to catch up with Japanese rivals Honda and Nissan.

Analysts say a high oil price environment was helping Toyota - which like other Japanese carmakers is perceived to produce more fuel-efficient cars - in China, but new models were helping also.

In May, the maker of the Reiz, Crown and Vios rolled out its first Chinese-made Camry at a new plant in the southern city of Guangzhou, hoping to grab customers from competing brands such as Honda's Accord.

A company spokeswoman said a month later that they would double the Camry capacity at the facility to 200,000 units per year to keep pace with strong demand.

Toyota's capacity in China, including the Guangzhou factory, stood at about 342,000 units. It has applied for approval to build an additional 200,000 units capacity in the northern port city of Tianjin, near Beijing.

Also yesterday, BMW Group said sales of BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce brand cars in China rose by 56 per cent year-on-year to 26,438 units in the first nine months of 2006.

The company said in a statement that in the greater China region, it sold 32,817 units of BMW and Oxford-built Mini cars, a rise of 39 per cent from a year earlier.

Globally, BMW Group's car sales increased 3.3 per cent to 1,021,534 cars in the January-September period.