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Volkswagen Revs Up to Overtake General Motors

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

A quarter of the way through 2013, Volkswagen is moving closer to its near-term goal of selling 10 million vehicles annually.

The German company, which finished last year as the third largest automaker in the world, is in position to overtake General Motors in global sales this year—and should close the gap with Toyota for the title of number one in the world.

Still, VW Board Member Christian Klingler sounded a cautious tone about weakness in European auto markets. "The data for March clearly show that the markets are becoming even more difficult," said Klingler.

Strong in China and U.S.

Volkswagen sold 2.27 million vehicles in the first quarter, an increase of 5.9 percent. The twin engines behind the growth were China and North America. In China, VW sales jumped 21.3 percent with the company on track to sell more than 3 million vehicles this year in the world's largest auto market.

Meanwhile, VW sales in North America increased 14.9 percent. Sales in both regions were helped by Volkswagen's acquisition of Porsche last year. The luxury sports car company has been enjoying record sales in the U.S. and China.

Still, the strength of the U.S. and China markets is tempered by Volkswagen struggling in Europe. In the first quarter, VW sales fell 5.9 percent for all of Europe and were down 7.2 percent in the company's home market of Germany. One bright spot amid the overall weakness in Europe was the fact VW posted a slight gain in Russia.

(Read More: Has Volkswagen Discovered the Holy Grail of Carmakers?)

Volkswagen is not the only automaker struggling in Europe. European sales for the industry are at their lowest point since the mid '90's due to the ongoing recession in much of the continent.

Climbing to Number Two in 2013

If Volkswagen can maintain sales growth of 5 percent for the remainder of the year, it will likely finish the year with annual sales of just over 9.5 million vehicles.

2012 Global Sales:

  • Toyota: 9.75 Million
  • General Motors: 9.29 Million
  • Volkswagen: 9.07 Million

Depending on what happens with General Motors, that could move the company into second place for global sales.

(Read More: GM to Invest $5.2 Billion in Germany's Opel)

Toyota has set a target of selling 9.91 million vehicles worldwide in 2013.

Executives with the Japanese automaker have repeatedly said their goal is to increase sales at a more measured rate to ensure the company does not repeat quality mistakes they made in the past when the company grew too fast.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau; Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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