Taking Down Toyota: Automakers Aim to Unseat Corolla as World’s Top-Selling Car

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Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A Ford Motor Co. 2012 Focus vehicle stands in the inspection area at the company's Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, U.S.

The Toyota Corolla is hardly the sexiest, most eye-catching, or highest-powered car on the road. It’s not the most fuel efficient or cheapest set of wheels either. But the Corolla does have serious bragging rights as the world’s best-selling car, and that’s a title that other automakers take note of—and hope to claim as their own. This year, it looks like Ford has the best chance of doing just that.

In August, neither the Corolla nor the Ford Focus was the best-selling car in the U.S. The Focus, in fact, wasn’t even in the top 10 for U.S. sales, though two of its sibling Ford vehicles, the Escape and the F series truck, were in the top 5. The latter has been America’s best-selling light vehicle for three decades running. The Toyota Camry, meanwhile, routinely outsells the Corolla in the U.S.

But while the U.S. automobile market is important, it is but one component of automakers’ global sales, and the tastes and needs of drivers worldwide are quite different than those in America. That point is quickly demonstrated by a look at best-sellers worldwide, as opposed to best-sellers within the U.S.

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Generally speaking, cars sold outside the U.S. are more likely to be smaller and get better gas mileage than those on American roads. Thus far in 2012, the Toyota Corolla and the Ford Focus—both compact sedans, a category as unexciting as it gets in the U.S.—have been neck and neck in terms of worldwide sales.

Ford recently sent out a press release announcing that, through the first six months of 2012, it was in the lead:

According to IHS Automotive, the Ford Focus sold 489,616 units in the first half of this year. The nearest competitor, Toyota Corolla, sold 462,187.

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The numbers allowed Ford to boast a bit. In the release, Ford’s VP of global marketing Jim Farley was quoted as saying, “The Focus is a winner on so many levels because it successfully provides customers with what they want most – a safe, smart, fuel-efficient, good-looking, fun-to-drive, affordable car.” But just because the Focus now has the lead doesn’t mean that it’ll wind up the winner for the year. The Focus outsold the Corolla in the first half of 2011, only to see the Corolla wind up holding on to its title as world’s top-seller for the year.

Going forward, the title isn’t expected to be a two-car race either. Toyota and Ford alike are expected to see increased competition, with Volkswagen and Nissan, among other automakers, coming out with redesigned models they hope will become mass sellers.

According to Reuters, the new VW Golf—which will be lighter and sleeker than its predecessors—is projected to increase sales by 17% over the next few years. The German automaker, currently third in overall global sales, may even be able to leapfrog the competition and take the top spot in less than a decade:

Volkswagen is on course to bump General Motors into the world no.3 ranking this year. It aims to sell a world-leading 10 million vehicles by 2018, up from the 8.36 million recorded last year, and push past Toyota.

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Nissan, meanwhile, is throwing its hat into the ring with its redesigned Sentra. The 2013 model comes with “an all-new platform, lighter body and 1.8-liter engine to elevate its appeal in the compact sedan segment now dominated by the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla,” according to Automotive News. The Sentra has a long way to go. In the U.S., it’s not only being outsold by the Civic, Corolla, and Focus, but by the Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, and Volkswagen Jetta as well.

While none of these cars is likely to cause heads to turn on the highway, it’s solid, practical, affordable vehicles like these that are doing something that’s even more important for automakers: They’re causing drivers around the globe to buy, in enormous quantities.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.