The battle among the world's biggest car makers comes as the industry is headed for a record year. Global sales this year will top 80 million cars and trucks for the first time, as robust US and Japanese purchases offset a European downturn, according to estimates from LMC Automotive.
Toyota is rebounding from Japan's 2011 tsunami to take the title from GM, while the fight for second between Volkswagen and GM remains too close to call, with less than one percent difference between their sales.
All three companies have benefited from the strength of the US light-vehicle market, which is heading for a third straight year of gains following the 2009 collapse and industry bailout. US sales are projected to increase again next year, which would match the longest string since the end of the Second World War.
"Because the US is so large, when we have a double-digit growth it's going to propel the rest of the world," said Rebecca Lindland, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive. "The gains can mask a myriad of sins elsewhere, because many of the other economies aren't exactly setting the world on fire."
The industry is headed for a more contentious battle next year, with LMC forecasting Volkswagen will add 600,000 units of production capacity next year, as much as GM and Toyota combined, and a projected rebound in China that favours the German car maker's prospects. Volkswagen has said it will be the global sales leader by 2018.
"We have a three-horse race for the rest of our forecast through 2019, with everyone kind of bouncing around and changing positions," said Jeff Schuster, the senior vice president of forecasting at LMC. "It is very tight."
The race is so tight that analysts will disagree on the outcome based on how they count sales. For example, some analysts exclude autos sold by GM's partners in China and by Toyota's two affiliates, Hino and Daihatsu, Mr Schuster said.
Based on the methods the automakers use to count their own sales, Toyota leads through the first three quarters, with 7.4 million units, compared with 6.95 million at GM, and 6.9 million at Volkswagen, including Porsche.
* Bloomberg News