DETROIT -- General Motors Co. said it sold 9.03 million vehicles worldwide last year, an increase of 7.6 percent from 2010.
But depending on how you count minority-owned affiliates and truck companies, and if you include vehicles such as microvans sold in China, either GM or VW was the world's biggest seller last year.
GM's results put it about 1 million units ahead of Volkswagen Group, which believes it should be No. 1.
The Wall Street Journal reported that VW feels it would be the top-seller last year if sales of all of its affiliates were included.
VW's figures don't count sales from truckmakers MAN and Scania, which will be added in a few weeks, a Volkswagen spokesman told the newspaper.
The truckmakers might add 200,000 vehicles to VW's sales total.
Rivals and some analysts also argue that GM's numbers are inflated by sales from its China partnerships with SAIC Motor Corp. and Wuling Motors Co.
Wuling sales, which totaled 1.29 million microvans last year, are excluded from GM's total in some tallies because GM holds a minority stake, 44 percent, in the partnership.
Likewise, GM has a 49 percent stake in its other big Chinese joint venture, Shanghai General Motors Corp., which sold 1.20 million units in China last year.
China's investment rules restrict foreign automakers to a maximum 50 percent stake in their Chinese joint ventures.
Volkswagen sold 8.16 million vehicles in 2011, an increase of 11 percent.
More than 2.2 million of those sales came from China, where VW holds a 50 percent share of Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive and a share of FAW-Volkswagen Automotive.
That stake is listed on the FAW-VW web site as 40 percent; press reports last year said it is scheduled to rise to 49 percent.
Toyota Motor Corp., which by most counts took the sales crown from GM in 2008, hasn't reported full-year results.
But it estimates its 2011 tally will show a decline of about 6 percent, to about 7.9 million units. Toyota's production was crimped by natural disasters in Japan and Thailand.
While GM CEO Dan Akerson has said that he places a higher priority on profit margins than on global unit volumes, the sales leadership gives the company a boost, said Dennis Virag, president of Automotive Consulting Group.
"It's bragging rights. Hopefully, that will have some impact on their share price," Virag told Bloomberg on Thursday.
GM's Chevrolet brand, aided by the Cruze compact car, helped drive the automaker's growth in 2011. Chevy had worldwide sales of 4.76 million cars and trucks last year.
The automaker's two largest markets finished with nearly identical totals. GM saw 2011 volume rise 8.3 percent in China to 2.55 million, including sales with its joint-venture partners, while U.S. deliveries rose 13 percent to 2.5 million.
GM's Asia business, including its partnership with SAIC Motor, has been helped by sales of its Wuling light trucks, which retail for about $4,400.
"These are not very expensive vehicles, but they are profitable and they sell a helluva lot of them," said Joe Phillippi, principal of U.S. consulting firm AutoTrends.
The return to No. 1 marks a sharp rebound for GM, coming 30 months after the company exited a U.S. government-backed bankruptcy.
When GM was last No. 1, in 2007, it was known as General Motors Corp. and lost $38.7 billion. Last year, the automaker may have earned $8.1 billion.
"The difference between this title and other times is that they are profitable and that's where the bankruptcy was helpful," said Rebecca Lindland, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive. "It's great to be No. 1, but it's a lot more fun to be profitable."
Toyota has estimated that 2012 calendar year sales will increase to about 8.5 million while Volkswagen has a stated goal of selling 10 million vehicles a year by 2018 or sooner to become the world's largest carmaker by 2018 or sooner.
Bloomberg and David Sedgwick contributed to this report.