TOKYO (Reuters) -- Volkswagen Group is closing in on Toyota Motor Corp. as the global leader in vehicle sales, with a rapid expansion drive in China -- the world's biggest auto market -- while Toyota curbs growth to focus on shoring up quality.
Toyota, reigning at the top spot in the auto industry for two years in a row, announced relatively robust global sales growth of 3.8 percent for the first six months of the year to 5.097 million vehicles on Wednesday, a record first-half result.
But Volkswagen is growing faster and its half-year total could pull even with or even surpass Toyota.
The Volkswagen group sold 4.97 million vehicles in January-June, up 5.9 percent from the same period a year ago, excluding figures from truck makers Scania and MAN that will be released on July 31.
IHS Automotive forecast Volkswagen's total first-half sales at 5.07 million vehicles including the truckmakers. The Toyota result, which the carmaker said reflected strong sales in the United States, China and Europe, exceeded the IHS forecast of 4.83 million.
General Motors, which Toyota overtook two years ago, said it sold 4.92 million vehicles in January-June.
Even if Toyota manages to retain its crown for the first half, its position looks less secure for the full year.
"China is the driving force of the global market, and the degree to which a company is focused on that region is linked to the global sales performance," said Yoshiaki Kawano, a Tokyo-based analyst at IHS Automotive.
In China -- Volkswagen and GM’s largest market -- passenger-vehicle deliveries climbed 11 percent to 9.6 million in the first six months of the year, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said this month. Volkswagen’s deliveries in China rose 18 percent to more than 1.8 million, topping GM’s 11 percent increase to 1.73 million. Toyota, which fell behind Ford in China last year, boosted half-year sales by 12 percent to 465,900, according to the company.
Volkswagen, which sold 3.27 million vehicles in China last year, is planning to invest 18.2 billion euros ($24.4 billion) between 2014 and 2018 in new plants and products there together with its Chinese joint venture partners.
Toyota has put a freeze on the building of new plants until about 2016 and President Akio Toyoda has stressed that the company is focused on building better cars rather than chasing sales volume.