Toyota, Ford Both Claim World's Top-Selling Car -- So Who's Right?

Depends on the Data. But the Stakes Are Higher Than You'd Think

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Toyota and Ford have something in common: They're both laying claim to making the world's best-selling car.

Earlier this month, Toyota said its Corolla held the title, while Ford says the Ford Focus is the winner. Which model really holds bragging rights depends on which data you're using. Toyota says Ford's count is skewed because it's based on a statistical sample; Ford says Toyota's tally is inflated because it counts Corolla models marketed under different names.

Ford fired the first shot when it issued a press release April 9 declaring Focus the "world's best-selling passenger car." Citing global market registration data from R.L. Polk & Co., Ford said it sold 1,020,410 of the compact cars in 2012.

Then Toyota thanked customers for making the Corolla "the best-selling nameplate ever" in a Sept. 5 press release, noting the automaker has sold 40 million Corollas since 1966.

Mike Michels, VP-communications for Toyota, says Toyota sold 1.16 million Corolla nameplates globally in 2012. He took issue with Ford's claim, saying it's based on a statistical sample by Polk. Toyota's claim "was determined by unit sales reported by all global Toyota distributors," he said. "The sales figure includes Corolla Sedan, which is over 90% of the total volume, the Corolla Altis, Corolla Axio sedans, as well as Corolla and Corolla Fielder wagons. It does not include Corolla derivatives such as the Auris, Auris Hybrid, Verso, E'z, Matrix, Scion xB and Rukus, which do not share the 'Corolla' name or body styles."

Scott Monty, global head of social media at Ford, said his company's claim is "straightforward": "We use Polk as an industry-recognized third party to make and validate the claim. It is a number that is based on total global vehicle registrations for the Focus vehicle nameplate only; it does not include derivatives or incorporate multiple vehicles."

The jousting may seem petty but it's not, said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com. Both Ford and Toyota are vying for sales in developing markets. The one that can advertise it offers the world's best-selling car has an edge, because the title "carries a lot of weight with consumers who are perhaps not familiar with the car-buying process and not familiar with brands," said Ms. Caldwell.

"In Corolla's defense, the Corolla's not called the Corolla in all markets," she said. "That's fair: Most companies actually do that. If you add up all of that, I think [Corolla] is the best-selling car. But if you're talking about "nameplates,' Focus is pretty much called the Focus everywhere. So it seems to point to Focus."

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