With the impact of a cheating scandal nipping at the heels of its chief rival, Toyota appears ready to win the global sales race for 2015 again, something that seemed far less likely just a few months ago.
Going into the final months of the year, Volkswagen AG was posed to nab the sales crown from the Japanese giant. But VW sales have taken a serious hit since it was revealed in mid-September that the German maker had cheated on diesel emission tests.
Both makers are still expected to finish 2015 with total sales of more than 10 million vehicles, a barrier that seemed difficult for any manufacturer to breach just a few years ago.
But Toyota officials are warning that global auto sales could stagnate next year, and some analysts are even fearing a modest dip, despite the ongoing recovery of the U.S. market and a nascent turnaround in Europe.
Through the end of November, Toyota sold 9.21 million vehicles, with Volkswagen’s 11-month total at 9.10 million. That marked a significant turnaround from the first half of the year, when VW outsold its Japanese rival. Toyota has now led the industry for five months in a row.
And the gap between the two industry leaders appears to be widening. VW’s sales slipped 2.2%, a slide that has been growing worse by the month since the carmaker’s subterfuge was first revealed. In September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that VW had installed a so-called “defeat device” designed to sharply reduce emissions levels when the system determined a vehicle equipped with a 2.0-liter turbodiesel was undergoing testing.
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Almost 500,000 vehicles sold in the U.S. were equipped with the software, VW has acknowledged, 11 million worldwide. The maker has since conceded it also violated U.S. rules with its 3.0-liter diesel used in such higher-end products as the Volkswagen Touareg, Audi Q5 and Porsche Cayenne.
VW has since offered gift cards and other bonuses to owners and earlier this month established a victims’ compensation fund headed by Ken Feinberg, who handled victims’ claims in the General Motors ignition switch scandal.
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How much of an impact VW will continue to feel from the diesel testing brouhaha is far from certain, though most observers anticipate it will be a while before sales recover. For one thing, VW currently can’t sell its diesel models in the U.S. where they normally account for a quarter of its retail volume.
While the VW scandal has given it some breathing room, Toyota still has some challenges of its own, notably in China and Europe, as well as the home Japanese market. Global sales by its various brands were off 1.0% for the first 11 months of this year and are likely to end the year slightly below 2014 levels, the maker has anticipated.
Meanwhile, Toyota is forecasting that it will sell 10.114 million vehicles in 2016, a virtually rounding era about the 10.098 million it expects to have sold by the end of this year.
General Motors, long the global leader, is expected to finished in third place for 2015, narrowly edging out the Renault-Nissan Alliance. GM had been the sales leader for three quarters of a century before ceding the crown to Toyota as the U.S. maker plunged towards its 2009 bankruptcy. GM briefly regained sales leadership in 2011 due to the effects of the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami, but Toyota rebounded the following year.
Toyota’s biggest problem is China where Japanese makers, in general, have struggled against Western manufacturers. But Toyota has also been lagging in Europe. Its biggest strength is the U.S. market where it is vying with Ford for second, behind only GM.
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