Volkswagen says it will be the global sales leader by 2018

The battle among the world’s biggest carmakers comes as the industry is headed for a record year. Global 2012 sales will top 80 million cars and trucks for the first time, as robust U.S. and Japanese purchases offset a European downturn, according to estimates from LMC Automotive.

Toyota Motor Corp. is poised to take back the title of world’s biggest automaker for 2012, as Volkswagen AG fights General Motors Co. for second place heading into the final weeks. Toyota is rebounding from Japan’s 2011 tsunami, while the fight for second position between Volkswagen and GM remains too close to call at less than one percent difference between their sales.

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. VW has increased sales in China 20 percent through November.

“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 Troy, Michigan-based LMC. “It’s very tight.”

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 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 sport- utility vehicle.

“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.”

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.