Volkswagen has sped past Japanese rival Toyota in global sales in the first half of 2011 as it readies to launch the Chattanooga-made Passat and a redesigned Beetle to gain U.S. market share.
VW now trails just General Motors in its bid to become the world's No. 1 automaker by sales by 2018.
In the first six months of the year, Detroit-based GM sold 4.5 million vehicles worldwide, up 8.9 percent from the same period in 2010, company figures show.
VW, headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany, posted record sales of 4.1 million vehicles in the period, up 11.1 percent from 2010, the company reported.
Toyota was third at 3.7 million, down 11 percent.
Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for the auto website Edmunds.com, said Toyota production has been hampered by the earthquake and tsunami.
But Toyota, tops in global sales in 2010 followed by GM and VW, is smoothing out production problems and it's introducing a redesigned Camry in the U.S. this year.
Krebs said that while the entry of the all-new Passat will boost VW's U.S. sales, it will take more than the midsize sedan to help the German automaker hit its ambitious goals. VW wants to triple sales and sell 1 million Volkswagens and Audis annually by 2018 in the U.S.
GLOBAL AUTO SALES
First six months
• General Motors: 4.5 million
• Volkswagen: 4.1 million
• Toyota: 3.7 million
BY THE NUMBERS
• 1.9 million: VW vehicles sold in Europe in first six months
• 1.11 million: Vehicles VW sold in China in first six months
• 319,000: U.S. sales for VW in first six months
"It's going to take a whole range of vehicles," Krebs said. In addition, she said, every morsel of the U.S. market is "bitterly contested."
"It's hard to see anybody giving an inch," Krebs said.
Globally, VW sales are surging in China, now the world's biggest auto market, and the automaker is growing in emerging markets of India and Russia. Already Europe's No.1 car maker, VW is counting on capturing more market share in the U.S. this year and becoming a major player. Through August, VW ranked ninth in the U.S. in sales, just behind Kia and ahead of BMW, according to Autodata.
Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW's Chattanooga operations, said the all-new Passat designed for the U.S. has a "good chance" to do well when sales start later this month.
He pointed to this year's sales of the updated VW Jetta sedan, which have jumped by more than 72 percent through August in the U.S. over 2010.
The Jetta was made a little larger and its price was cut to broaden its buyer appeal. That's a similar formula the German automaker is following with the Passat.
"Looking at the Passat, when the car is designed for the market and you set the right price, there's a really good chance," Fischer said.
Christian Klingler, Volkswagen Group's board member for sales, said in a statement that officials are confident VW will outperform the rest of the global market in the second half of the year.
"The Volkswagen Group is maintaining its growth trajectory with its strong model range," he said.
GM, meanwhile, has taken advantage of the Japanese automakers' production issues, and its new compact Cruze is performing well. The Cruze has become Chevrolet's second best-selling vehicle behind the Silverado truck in the U.S., company figures show.