Toyota overtook Volkswagen Group to become the world's top-selling automaker in 2020 as the slump in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic hit VW harder.
It was the first time Toyota clinched the position in five years.
Toyota's 2020 group sales, which include those of its subsidiaries Lexus, Daihatsu and Hino, fell 11 percent to 9.53 million units, the company said Thursday.
VW Group's global deliveries declined by 15 percent to 9.31 million, the automaker said on Jan. 13. VW's figure includes sales of the VW, Audi, Porsche, Skoda and Seat brands, as well as its Scania and MAN heavy truck units.
The extent of the automakers' sales losses was largely determined by their level of exposure to the regions most disrupted by the virus.
VW has a strong footprint in the European Union, where passenger car sales fell an "unprecedented" 24 percent to fewer than 10 million in 2020, according to industry association ACEA. VW Group sales fell 15 percent, its worst performance in close to a decade.
Toyota, on the other hand, has a bigger presence in the U.S., where total car sales fell 15 percent in 2020. Although the U.S. has the most COVID-19 deaths and cases, there have not been the same lockdowns as in Europe.
VW Group CEO Herbert Diess initiated a strategic shift after he took the top job in 2018 to focus on lifting profitability rather than chasing sales growth. VW's return on sales has been lagging Toyota's for years and the market slump triggered by the pandemic a year ago exposed VW's relatively high costs.
Prior to 2020, VW outsold Toyota in every year since 2015. But the two companies' results last year may be indicative of a longer-term trend, according to analysts. While VW is expected to temporarily surpass Toyota again in 2021, Toyota is projected to pull ahead each year through 2025, IHS Markit said.
VW's push to produce more electrified vehicles should lead to a sales spike this year, but prolonged lockdowns and dealership showroom closures in its domestic market will continue to have an adverse impact, analyst Yoshiaki Kawano said.
Kawano said Toyota will continue to enjoy strong sales in its core markets of Japan and the U.S. In China, the world’s largest car market and VW's largest market, it should "put up a good fight" by pushing out more EVs and SUVs in line with local demand, he said.
Although a number of factors such as the continued spread of the virus and a global chip shortage will persist in 2021, IHS Markit estimates auto sales will recover steadily to 84.4 million units from 76.8 million in 2020. Global car sales are expected to reach 94.8 million in 2025.
Toyota played down its 2020 lead over VW. "Our focus is not on what our ranking may be, but on serving our customers," a Toyota spokeswoman said.
Bloomberg and Reuters contributed to this report