China passed the United States to become the world's largest vehicle market in 2009, according to recent media reports.
The numbers seem indisputable: Chinese vehicle sales last year grew 46 percent to 13.6 million units, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM).
This put China well ahead of the U.S., where light-vehicle sales fell 21 percent to 10.4 million units, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
But wait a minute – what about Europe?
Counting sales of passenger cars, minivans and SUVs (the core auto market), Europe was the world's largest auto market in 2009 for the second consecutive year.
ACEA, the association of European automakers, on Friday reported that 2009 passenger-car sales in Europe were 14.48 million, down 1.6 percent from 2008.
This puts the EU well ahead of China, where passenger-car sales last year were 10.3 million units according to CAAM.
Even restricting the count to the European Union 27 member countries, the total is still well ahead of China at 14.12 million.
Counting passenger-car sales only, the EU was already the world's largest auto market in 2008 with sales of 13.16 million because U.S. light-vehicle sales of 13.24 million include 6.2 million truck sales, part of which are not included in passenger-car figures in Europe where they are classified as commercial vehicles.
This year could be a different story. In 2010, European sales are expected to fall between 1 million and 1.5 million units, which would mean the market would be between 13.48 million and 12.98 million.
The U.S. market is expected to recover between 1 million and 2 million sales in 2010 and China is forecast to add another 2.4 million units to its gross total.
With these forecasts, it appears that the EU will remain the world's largest auto market for passengers cars in 2010, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory because it's much better to be No. 2 or No. 3 with growing sales than to remain No. 1 but lose considerable volume.
A market where sales are increasing gives automakers a chance to boost profits.