BEIJING (Bloomberg) -- After trailing General Motors Co. in China for eight years, Volkswagen edged ahead in third-quarter sales, putting it one step closer to its goal of becoming the world's biggest automaker.
VW's deliveries in the country jumped 21 percent last quarter, almost triple GM's growth, to 704,991 vehicles, according to figures the company reported on Wednesday. That beat the 664,765 that GM reported earlier this month.
At stake is supremacy in the world's biggest auto market, which analysts say will likely exceed those of the United States, Japan and Germany combined three years from now. China is the biggest market for both companies.
"Being No. 1 in China means a lot to their global development," said Harry Chen, an analyst with Guotai Junan Securities Co. in Shenzhen. "Volkswagen and GM will go through a period of time fighting at close quarters in China and they may take turns grabbing the lead."
The market comparisons are not perfect as VW counts Hong Kong and Macau in its China sales figures, but excludes trucks, while GM does the opposite.
Kevin Wale, GM China's outgoing president, confirmed on Wednesday that his company had ceded the top spot for the quarter. Volkswagen declined to comment.
With only one quarter left, GM's lead of about 77,000 units may be enough for the company to hang on to the annual China sales crown. The Buick Excelle and Chevrolet Sail were the top two selling cars in China for the first nine months, while VW's top seller, the Jetta, ranked fourth, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. VW had five of the 10 best-selling cars through September, while GM claimed three spots, according to CAAM.
Volkswagen introduced new versions of its Lavida and Audi A4L sedans in the third quarter, and benefited from a territorial dispute that fueled so much anti-Japan sentiment that Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. saw their September sales in China tumble the most since at least 2008.
By comparison, most GM sedans were introduced two to three years ago and are reaching the end of their product life cycles, making them less attractive to car buyers, according to researcher LMC Automotive.
With more refreshed models in showrooms just as Chinese buyers have turned away from Japanese brands, Volkswagen has been better able to capitalize on the tensions than GM, said Steve Man, a Nomura Holdings Inc. analyst. Volkswagen is also expanding production capacity faster -- 38 percent growth this year versus GM's 26 percent, JPMorgan Chase & Co. estimates.
Cushion against Europe
Volkswagen isn't alone in gaining on GM. South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. and affiliate Kia Motors Corp. saw their combined sales rise 9.5 percent to a record in September. Ford Motor Co., whose Focus compact is the No. 3 selling car in China this year, reported sales jumped 35 percent.
China has helped cushion the slump in Europe, where car deliveries are headed for their biggest fall in 19 years as the region's financial crisis continues.
Volkswagen, which aims to be the world's leading automaker by 2018, on Wednesday reported its biggest quarterly earnings drop since 2009 because of Europe.
Though auto sales in China have slowed in recent months, the market has plenty of room to grow. Vehicle ownership in the country was equivalent to 4.7 percent of the population, versus about 51 percent in Japan and 81 percent in the United States, according to 2009 figures from the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.
Volkswagen in 1984 became the second foreign auto brand, after Jeep, to produce cars in China. But more recently it has trailed GM as the Detroit-based company and its Chinese partners cranked up production of Wuling minivans, which have outsold all other four-wheel vehicles in China for the past eight years. While quarterly comparisons only go back to mid-2009, annual data shows Volkswagen hasn't held the lead in China since 2004.
Volkswagen is planning to invest 14 billion euros ($18 billion) from 2012 to 2016 in the country to regain its lead. GM said last year it planned to invest as much as $7 billion in China from 2011 to 2015. To spur sales, GM is expanding capacity and boosting production of its luxury Cadillac lineup in China, CEO Dan Akerson told reporters in Sao Paulo on Oct. 21.
"Of course we'd like to see a more robust market in China," Akerson said. "To me, it's not whether you're the biggest car manufacturer. It's whether you want to be the most profitable."
GM's ability to fend off Volkswagen could hinge on Wuling's minivans, which start below $5,000 and are used as both passenger-and cargo vehicles. Wuling accounts for about half of the Detroit automaker's deliveries in China.
Wuling September sales fell 2.5 percent -- more than the total market -- as the slowing economy hit demand for cheaper vehicles as less-wealthy buyers reined in spending. Speculation the government may subsidize new minivans and small cars to spur growth in rural areas has also made some buyers delay purchases, said John Zeng, director of Asian forecasting at LMC in Shanghai.
While a 3.2 percent increase in Chevrolet sales helped GM avoid an overall drop, deliveries of Buicks tumbled the most since at least 2010 and Cadillac sales fell for a sixth straight month. Those brands are important to GM because they generate more than twice as much profit per car as Wuling, according to LMC.
GM, which like Volkswagen has ventures with SAIC Motor Corp. and China FAW Group Corp., is adding SUVs, a category that's been expanding about nine times faster than China's overall auto industry.
A 1.6-liter engine version of the Chevrolet Malibu, GM's second-best selling car in the United States this year, has been a disappointment since it hit the market in February, said Lin Huaibin, an analyst in Shanghai with researcher IHS Global Insight. "Malibu is a disaster," Lin said. The car was unable to effectively compete against the Superb from VW's Skoda brand and Hyundai's Sonata, which has sold about twice the 29,000 units GM has managed with the Malibu this year.
Competition between GM and VW is entering a new era with both announcing in the past four months changes in the leadership of their China businesses. "Both companies have proven they are strong in this market," said Bill Russo, Beijing-based senior adviser at Booz & Co. "They are the two big fish in the pond and that's not going to change even with a shuffling of management."