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Sales fall but VW might be at the top

VOLKSWAGEN'S global vehicle sales fell by 11.4 percent in the first quarter but its market share gains may have let it overtake Japan's Toyota Motor as the world's top-selling auto maker.

Government incentives in key markets have fueled demand for the German group's vehicles, limiting its sales decline even as the global market shrank by more than a fifth.

VW's first-quarter group sales of 1.39 million vehicles for two months - excluding truck maker Scania but including VW trucks and buses - gave it a global market share of 11 percent, up from 9.7 percent a year earlier, it said in a statement.

Toyota has given no forecast for retail sales, but its latest estimate for shipments for this year's first quarter is 1.23 million vehicles, down 47 percent from a year earlier.

Volkswagen - with its nine car and truck brands, including Audi, Skoda, Seat and Scania - has a goal of overtaking Toyota and General Motors Corp to be the world's No. 1 seller by 2018 - a target that was initially met with skepticism.

But a deepening recession and credit crisis have crippled demand in Toyota's top markets, with United States sales falling 38 percent and Japan sliding 24 percent in the first quarter of the year.

Volkswagen, meanwhile, is benefiting from government stimulus plans for the car industry that have boosted sales in Germany, China and Brazil, which together accounted for 44 percent of group sales last year, making it more likely that it beat Toyota or at least came close.

In Germany, new registrations of Volkswagen group brands rose 19 percent in the first quarter to about 282,000. Toyota sales grew 43 percent but its market share is just 4.4 percent whereas about every third new car sold in Germany came from the Wolfsburg-based manufacturer.

"Volkswagen has the luck of being strong in the markets that are currently growing, while Toyota is exposed to those that are collapsing," said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, head of the Center for Automotive Research in Gelsenkirchen, adding the quarter's results would be "close."

Market research company RL Polk Germany predicted this month that Volkswagen would overtake GM as the world's second-largest auto maker as the US giant suffers steep declines at home amid fears of bankruptcy.


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