- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2012

DETROIT — General Motors Co. is on track to retake the title of world’s top-selling automaker, riding strong sales in the U.S. and China to beat Volkswagen and Toyota.

GM, which lost the crown to Toyota in 2008 after holding it for more than seven decades, won’t release global sales numbers until later this month, but it’s on pace to finish 2011 at about 9 million cars and trucks, at least 800,000 more than its German and Japanese rivals.

Volkswagen AG said Monday that it sold a record 8.15 million vehicles last year, a 14 percent rise over 2010. The company expects a tough 2012, though. Toyota earlier had reported sales of 7.9 million vehicles in 2011.

GM, meanwhile, sold almost 7 million vehicles worldwide in the first three quarters and is expected to reach about 9 million for all of 2011.

GM has more appealing cars and trucks than it did when Toyota took the crown away, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting company in Troy, Mich.

Other manufacturers have passed Toyota partly because its car production was paralyzed in March by Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. But rivals also developed stylish vehicles that are drawing more customers.

“They’re not pushing their designs as much as others in terms of new looks and feel,” Mr. Schuster said of Toyota. “The market has changed.”

Volkswagen met its aggressive sales goals in the U.S. and throughout the world, and its products also have made it a strong global competitor, Mr. Schuster said. In the U.S., VW sales rose 26 percent last year to top 324,000 vehicles, surpassing its 300,000 goal, boosted by a new Jetta compact sedan and the Passat midsize sedan.

Mr. Schuster expects a tighter race for the global sales crown next year with Toyota recovering from Japan’s disasters and the Nissan-Renault venture challenging the leaders.

Volkswagen - whose brands include Audi, Skoda and Seat - has a goal of producing 10 million vehicles per year and passing Toyota and GM to become the world’s biggest automaker by 2018.

“All the company’s brands have shown increases in difficult conditions on volatile markets,” said Volkswagen’s top sales and marketing executive, Christian Klingler, calling the 2011 figures “an outstanding result.” But he added that the coming year will be demanding. “In 2012 the risks are increasing above all on European markets.”

But the 2011 figures underlined a strong year for German automakers, which have profited from strong sales and profits in emerging markets, especially China. Volkswagen, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche all recorded record vehicle sales for the year.

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