Toyota To Topple As World's #1 Automaker, VW & GM Ride To Top

October 25, 2011

Volkswagen is bound and determined to become the world's largest automaker, and it promises to do so by 2018. According to industry analysts, VW could meet its goal this year -- seven years ahead of schedule -- but it may not stay on top for long.

In terms of sales volume, Toyota is the world's biggest automaker, annually moving over 8 million units around the globe. However, the company has been slipping in recent years, due in part to some high-profile recalls of Toyota models. But most damaging to Toyota was the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan back in March, causing massive casualties and significant production delays for Toyota and other Japanese firms. The flooding that's currently affecting Southeast Asia isn't helping, either.

According to estimates from J.D. Power, IHS Automotive and PwC Autofacts, those factors will force Toyota into the #3 spot in world rankings, with around 7.27 million sales projected for 2011. However, that doesn't mean that the current #2 -- General Motors -- will rise to the top of the heap. GM sales should improve to about 7.55 million, but that won't be enough to overtake Volkswagen, which has been upping production in emerging markets like China and India. VW is expected to sell around 8.1 million vehicles this calendar year, giving it the #1 spot.

But it's not all good news for Volkswagen. As production in Japan returns to full capacity, Toyota stands a chance of regaining its #1 rank in 2012, though analysts differ on the degree to which it might surpass VW. IHS estimates a gap of around 500,000 units, with Toyota ringing 8.4 million sales and VW finishing with 7.9 million. J.D. Power expects VW to remain on top, though with a minimal sales gap of just 50,000 units.

The key variables in those rankings seem to be China and India. The growth of the auto markets in those two countries is far outpacing growth in the U.S., which already has an established middle class of shoppers. VW has been aggressively expanding throughout China, and its partnership with Suzuki has helped the company make inroads in India, too. A potential breakup of the VW-Suzuki partnership, though, could damage that progress. 

And then there's the dark horse, GM, which has also been pushing hard in China and India, as well as Brazil. Most analysts don't expect GM to keep pace with VW or Toyota, but as we know all too well around here, never say never.

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