At first glance, it might seem that 2015 has been unkind to Volkswagen.
U.S. sales of VW's mass-market brand have continued their long, long losing streak, down 2.6 percent for the year. (Though smaller-volume sales of Audi and Porsche are up.) In China, the situation is even grimmer: the company found itself in the red for the first time in a decade, with sales off 3.9 percent. In Russia, sales fell a staggering forty-one percent. And let's not forget the grueling, ugly battle for control of VW that played out in headlines over the spring.
But as lousy as some of that news may appear, the situation elsewhere has been lousier. According to Detroit News, things are so bad at Toyota that VW outsold the Japanese giant for the first six months of the year.
How did that happen? The keys to VW's success -- at least now and in the near future -- are Japan and Europe.
In Japan, Toyota's home turf, Toyota sales hit the skids due to economic woes. That's one of the big reasons that Toyota's global sales for the first half of 2015 were down 1.5 percent compared to last year. Between January 1 and June 30, the automaker sold 5.02 million vehicles worldwide.
Things are brighter in Europe, VW's home turf, where sales have continued to improve in lockstep with the region's economy. Even though VW depends heavily on other regions for sales, and even though it saw huge losses elsewhere (e.g. Brazil, off 30 percent), the strong European market trimmed those losses to 0.5 percent for the first six months of the year. VW reports selling 5.04 million vehicles during the period.
Will VW maintain its narrow lead of 20,000 sales and 2015 on top? That depends. The situation at Toyota isn't likely to improve much over the next six months -- and the company has said so publicly. However, VW stands a chance of stumbling in a big way if Europe's fragile economic recovery should stall (looking at you, Greece).
And of course, there's another player in this that bears mentioning: General Motors. GM was the world's top-selling automaker until the Great Recession, and even now it's still in the running for the trophy. Stay tuned on Thursday as GM releases sales stats for the first half of 2015.