Volkswagen set to become world’s largest automaker this year image

In 2006 Volkswagen AG set out the ambitious target to become the world’s number one carmaker by 2018.

At the time, it seemed unlikely, as General Motors was holding on to that title for more than 70 years and Toyota looked as the only automaker capable to unseat GM.

But times are changing and in 2011 VW looks set to be the world’s largest carmaker at the end of the year, with expected sales of more than 8 million units. The German giant has benefitted from the sales boom in China and other emerging markets in recent years and it has also grown through acquisitions. Now VW is expanding rapidly in the United States after investing heavily on the market.

But General Motors and Toyota will still have a shot at regaining the number one spot, as most forecasters see the three automakers battling for the top position for years to come. “What we have is a three-horse race,” Maryann Keller, an auto analyst and consultant in Stamford, Connecticut, was quoted as saying by the Detroit News.

It’s a very close fight, so close that the 2011 ranking will depend on how they count vehicle sales from their Chinese joint ventures. For the first nine months of 2011, VW reported sales of 6.2 million units worldwide, Toyota 5.8 million and GM 6.8 million – including 884,000 vehicles of the U.S. carmaker’s Chinese Wuling venture.

However, forecasting firms IHS Automotive and LMC Automotive don’t assign the Wuling sales to GM, as the Detroit-based manufacturer is a minority owner, with a 44 percent stake in the Chinese joint venture. The two forecasters estimate VW will end the year in the lead.