TOKYO - New vehicle sales in Japan slumped to the lowest level in three decades in 2008 as recession hit Asia's biggest economy, piling pressure on its auto giants, an industry group said yesterday.

Domestic sales, excluding mini-vehicles, tumbled 6.5 percent from the previous year to 3.2 million units for the fifth straight annual decline, the Japan Automobile Dealers Association said.

It was the lowest level since 1974 in the wake of the first oil shock, when automakers had sold 3.1 million vehicles. Auto sales reached a peak of nearly 6 million units in 1990.

"It is a very serious situation," said Takeshi Fushimi, the association's director. "In the throes of a kind of economic slump that occurs once in a century, consumers' sentiment has rapidly cooled."The sales slump worsened towards the end of the year. In December alone sales fell 22.3 percent from a year earlier to 183,549 vehicles.