All three companies have benefited from the strength of the U.S. light-vehicle market, which is heading for a third straight year of gains following the 2009 collapse and industry bailout. U.S. sales are projected to increase again next year, which would match the longest string since the end of World War II.
"Because the U.S. 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 in 2013, 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 favors the German carmaker'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, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC in Troy, Mich. "It's 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, 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 AG.
Though more recent global data isn't available, Toyota has continued its rebound in the U.S. and Japan markets through November. Japanese auto sales have surged 31 percent through the first 11 months, driven by government incentives. GM has been bolstered by rising sales there, while VW has increased sales in China 20 percent through November.
Toyota is grabbing the global sales lead in part because of dealers such as Madoka Suzuki, a manager for Netz Toyota Sendai in Ishinomaki, Japan, just under a mile from the ocean. The city of 160,826 in Japan's Northern Miyagi prefecture suffered 3,471 people killed and 470 missing from the 2011 earthquake and he said many of his customers were among the victims as the tsunami waters reached his showroom.
"Now our business is back to normal and the sales volume is almost back to the level of pre-disaster," said Suzuki, whose normal level is about 550 sales a year of popular models such as the Prius, Aqua and Vitz. "I would say it was around October last year when the business got back to normal"
Through November, the Japanese automaker had gained 29 percent in the U.S. and ramped up 41 percent in Japan through October, according to the latest sales figures.
"Whether the sales increase of this year will be sustained is questionable, but the introduction of mass volume models such as the Corolla should position Toyota in a very good place in terms of model lineup," said Takaki Nakanishi, an analyst at Bank of America Corp.'s Merrill Lynch.
GM is on track for 12 straight quarters of profit after a $50-billion U.S. government-backed bankruptcy in 2009 saved it from liquidation. GM ceded its 77-year global sales reign to Toyota in 2008 and regained it last year as sales recovered and Toyota lost volume to the Japanese earthquake and flooding in Thailand.
The U.S. automaker is on pace for the best year globally since 2007, when sales last peaked at 9.37 million. GM's worldwide sales in the first nine months of this year were 2.5 percent better than 2011.
Scott LaRiche has seen the rebound firsthand. His family's 40-year-old Lou LaRiche Chevrolet franchise, west of Detroit in Plymouth, Mich., was slated for closing during the 2009 bankruptcy.
Instead, the family fought back and survived. The dealership completed a nine-month renovation this week and plans to hire about 10 more employees. Sales this year will eclipse the 1,126 last year on demand for small cars like the Chevy Sonic and Spark and the redesigned Malibu sedan, he said.
"It's a comeback kid story from the brink of extinction," he said. "We're very fortunate."
GM's U.S. sales rose 3.5 percent through November and more than 10 percent in China, offsetting a 12.5 percent decline in Europe.
"That title's going to go where it's going to go," said Mary Barra, GM's senior vice president of global product development. "We believe we're well-positioned in the important growth markets," such as Brazil, India, Russia and China.
No automaker has ever sold 10 million vehicles in a year. Both Toyota and Volkswagen have forecasts to hit that mark in the next several years.
Volkswagen, which counts Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti among its luxury nameplates, will invest 50.2 billion euros ($66 billion) in the next three years in its auto division to expand production capacity, including a new Audi plant in Mexico and extending a Porsche factory in Leipzig, Germany, to produce the Macan SUV.
VW said Dec. 14 that through November of this year it has already exceeded a 2011 record of 8.36 million cars and trucks and has a target to sell 10 million by 2018. The automaker's sales rose 31 percent in the U.S. through November, the biggest gain among carmakers there.
"Volkswagen's amazing," said Christoph Stuermer, a Frankfurt-based analyst with IHS Automotive. "They're full of cash and full of technology. They can feature up their cars like almost no one else can."
Next year VW is set to narrow the gap with Toyota, and 2014 could be the year for VW to take the lead on a recovery in Europe, said Stuermer.
Estimates next year do favor Volkswagen in the race with Toyota, said LMC's Schuster, who forecasts global sales will rise to almost 83 million overall.
One reason is geography. China, where VW is in a pitched battle with GM to regain the title as the top-selling foreign automaker, will lead all major markets in growth, followed by the U.S., and the slump in Europe will be less pronounced, he said.
The rebound in China is less helpful for Toyota, which was on track to sell 1 million vehicles there this year before a territorial dispute between China and Japan triggered violent protests across the country. Toyota is likely headed for its first annual drop in China sales on record.
VW's rising fortunes have been very good to Gunther Volkswagen of Coconut Creek, Fla., near Ft. Lauderdale -- the automaker's largest volume U.S. dealer, said Michael Zavell, the Internet sales director.
The store is adding a 300-car parking deck to gain space for more inventory and expanding the service department by 40 percent, he said.
"The momentum is definitely there for Volkswagen," said Zavell, who credits new models such as the CC and Passat with the dealership's 33 percent sales increase over the last two years, to about 4,000 cars this year. "The product is there and they're filling the pipeline. We couldn't' be more optimistic."