VW grabs global auto sales crown, but Renault-Nissan Alliance closes the gap

Key Points
  • Volkswagen emerged again as the world's No. 1 automaker last year, delivering 10.8 million vehicles. 
  • The German marque's sales were up 0.9 percent for the year as it continued to recover from the diesel emissions scandal that had hammered its image.
  • The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance is a close second with 10.76 million vehicle deliveries. 
Beetles during the 12th Beetle Sunshine Tour To Travemuende the 12th Beetle Sunshine Tour on August 20, 2016 in Luebeck, Germany. 
Franziska Krug | German Select | Getty Images

Volkswagen managed to hang on to its global sales crown last year despite an aggressive challenge from its Euro-Asian rival, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.

The three top auto groups each managed to deliver more than 10 million vehicles worldwide last year, but the industry saw a sharp dip by General Motors, the long-time sales king sliding by more than 1 million sales for the year, into a distant fourth place.

VW said it delivered about 10.83 million vehicles last year, giving it a modest 70,000-unit lead over its closest rival — the fifth time in a row it led the industry. The German marque's sales were up 0.9 percent for the year as it continued to recover from the diesel emissions scandal that had hammered its image, especially in the critical U.S. market.

VW managed to fend off its rivals with the help of its MAN and Scania heavy truck subsidiaries. Excluding those, the Wolfsburg-based company sold a total of 10.6 million light-duty vehicles in 2018.

That means that the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance was able to maintain bragging rights in that segment, having sold 10.76 million light-duty products in 2018. None of the three partners sells heavy-duty trucks.

Until two years ago, what was then the Renault-Nissan Allliance was a distant challenger for global sales leadership. That changed when Nissan purchased a controlling stake in Mitsubishi. For 2018, that struggling Japanese automaker added sales of 1.2 million to the alliance total, up 18 percent for the year for Mitsubishi. In fact, the Euro-Asian group might have been able to topple VW overall were it not for a 2.8 percent sales decline by Nissan, which delivered 5.7 million light vehicles. The French partner, Renault, sold 3.9 million cars and light duty trucks, up 3.2 percent.

Pedestrians walk in front of a monitor showing an image of former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn in a news program on December 10, 2018 in Tokyo, Japan.
Tomohiro Ohsumi | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Whether Nissan will be able to deliver a more formidable challenge — indeed, whether it will even be able to hold onto its second-place finish in 2019 – is uncertain. Industry analysts are watching closely to see what, if any, impact there will be from the scandal surrounding last November's arrest of Carlos Ghosn. He remains jailed in Tokyo and faces numerous charges of financial corruption that he's denied.

The 64-year-old executive helped put together the alliance in 1999 when he oversaw a $6 billion Renault bailout of the then-floundering Nissan. He went on to head the group while also negotiating Nissan's takeover of Mitsubishi two years ago. The scandal has raised numerous challenges for the alliance, including a series of executive management changes. Some analysts, including Joe Phillippi, head of AutoTrends Consulting, warn that the alliance itself could come apart.

VW has itself negotiated some tough challenges over the last several years triggered by revelations it rigged diesel emissions tests. The carmaker saw sales in the key U.S. market tumble, even as it was forced to pay nearly $30 billion in fines and settlements. But while VW still faces some legal hurdles, it has largely put the diesel scandal in the past as far as buyers are concerned, demand in the U.S. rising sharply last year.

A man walks next to the Volkswagen Group China office in Beijing on March 29, 2017.
Fred Dufour | AFP | Getty Images

Nonetheless, VW faces some other challenges this year, particularly in China, its number one sales region. The world's largest automotive market posted a rare sales decline in 2018 and it remains uncertain whether the new year will bring a rebound. VW also faces challenges from increasingly aggressive local manufacturers, such as BYD, Chery and Great Wall, along with global makers like General Motors and Toyota.

That Japanese giant itself displaced GM as the world's number-one automaker by sales early in the decade as the U.S. automaker plunged into bankruptcy, but in 2018 it slipped to third globally for the second year running.

For all of 2018, Toyota sales totaled 10.6 million, a figure that includes both the flagship Toyota brand and its Lexus luxury division, as well as minicar subsidiary Daihatsu and heavy truck brand Hino Motors. Toyota's light vehicle sales total came to 10.4 million.

The 2020 Toyota Supra rear-wheel-drive sports coupe is revealed at the 2019 North American International Auto Show, January 14, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

Where it will land in the pecking order for 2019 is uncertain. Toyota is forecasting sales of 10.8 million vehicles, a figure that would put it in the running to at least grab the second-place finish, especially if the Ghosn affair unsettles operations at the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.

As for General Motors, CEO Mary Barra has abandoned the growth-at-all-costs strategy of her predecessors, closing money-losing operations in places like Russia and South Africa and selling off the German-based Opel Vauxhall subsidiary to France's PSA Group.

The Detroit automaker saw sales peak in 2016 at just over 10 million, but they slipped to 9.6 million a year later. GM won't report full-year 2018 numbers until it releases its annual earnings report next week, but it has signaled demand slipped even more sharply, to around 8.4 million, the decline reflecting, for one thing, the exclusion of 681,000 vehicles sold by the now French-owned Opel-Vauxhall.