Oh, what a feeling

Toyota Motor is on a roll and set to reclaim the No 1 spot in global car sales thanks to strong demand in Japan and the United States

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 4:41pm

Toyota Motor is poised to take back the title of world's biggest carmaker for this year, as Volkswagen fights General Motors for second place heading into the final weeks.

The battle among the world's biggest carmakers comes as the industry is headed for a record year. Global 2012 sales will top 80 million cars and trucks for the first time, as robust US and Japanese purchases offset a European downturn, according to estimates from LMC Automotive.

Toyota is rebounding from Japan's 2011 tsunami to take the title from GM, while the fight for second between Volkswagen and GM remains too close to call, with less than 1 per cent difference between their sales.

All three companies have benefited from the strength of the US light-vehicle market, which is heading for a third consecutive year of gains following the 2009 collapse and industry bailout. US sales are projected to increase again next year, which would match the longest string since the end of the second world war.

"Because the US is so large, when we have a double-digit growth it's going to propel the rest of the world," said Rebecca Lindland, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive.

"The gains can mask myriad sins elsewhere, because many of the other economies aren't exactly setting the world on fire."

The industry is headed for a more contentious battle in 2013, with LMC forecasting Volkswagen will add 600,000 units of production capacity next year, as much as GM and Toyota combined, and a projected rebound in China that favours the German carmaker's prospects. Volkswagen has said it will be the global sales leader by 2018.

"We have a three-horse race for the rest of our forecast through 2019, with everyone kind of bouncing around and changing positions," said Jeff Schuster, a senior vice-president of forecasting at LMC. "It's very tight."

The race is so tight that analysts will disagree on the outcome based on how they count sales. For example, some analysts excluded cars sold by GM's partners in China and by Toyota's two affiliates, Hino and Daihatsu, Schuster said.

Based on the methods the carmakers use to count their own sales, Toyota leads for the first three quarters, with 7.4 million units, compared with 6.95 million at GM, and 6.9 million at Volkswagen, including Porsche.

Although more recent global data is not available, Toyota has continued its rebound in the US and Japan markets as of November.

Japanese car sales have surged 31 per cent in the first 11 months, driven by government incentives. GM, the top US carmaker, has been bolstered by rising sales there, while VW has increased sales in China 20 per cent up to November.

Toyota is grabbing the global sales lead in part because of dealers such as Madoka Suzuki, a manager for Netz Toyota Sendai in Ishinomaki, Japan, about two kilometres from the ocean.

The city of 160,826 suffered 3,471 people killed and 470 missing from the 2011 earthquake and he said many of his customers were among the victims as the tsunami waters reached his showroom.

"Now our business is back to normal and the sales volume is almost back to the level of pre-disaster," said Suzuki.

His normal level is about 550 sales a year of popular models such as the Prius, Aqua and Vitz. "I would say it was around October last year when the business got back to normal"

Up to November, the Japanese carmaker had gained 29 per cent in the US and 41 per cent in Japan as of October, according to the latest sales figures.

"Whether the sales increase of this year will be sustained is questionable, but the introduction of mass volume models such as the Corolla should position Toyota in a very good place in terms of model line-up," said Takaki Nakanishi, an analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

GM is on track for 12 consecutive quarters of profit after a US$50 billion US government-backed bankruptcy in 2009 saved it from liquidation.

GM ceded its 77-year global sales reign to Toyota in 2008 and regained it last year as sales recovered and Toyota lost volume to the Japanese earthquake and flooding in Thailand.

The US carmaker is on pace for the best year globally since 2007, when sales last peaked at 9.37 million. GM's worldwide sales in the first nine months of this year were 2.5 per cent better than 2011.

GM's US sales rose 3.5 per cent to November and more than 10 per cent in China, offsetting a 12.5 per cent decline in Europe.