SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Toyota Motor Corp.'s Five Continents Drive was especially pivotal this year because the convoy swept through South America, a region where the world's biggest automaker is still an also-ran player.
Indeed, the project feeds Toyota's push to outflank rivals from Detroit, Europe and Seoul in the last great untapped markets: Latin America, India, Africa and beyond.
The multiyear, round-the-world test drive is premised on CEO Akio Toyoda's belief that "roads make the cars." Cars must be designed and built to perform on the roads they will run on.
And to build better cars, Toyota must know the world's whole range of roads.
There is little doubt Toyota knows the roads in the mature markets of Japan, North America and Europe. Toyota's market share there already is commensurate with the company's massive size.
But payoffs are potentially greater in emerging markets, where Toyota still has much to learn. So, after Latin America, the Five Continents teams will take on Africa and Asia.
With rapidly expanding populations and growing middle classes, emerging markets will help dictate the industry's future winners. Toyota's outbound ambitions serve warning to Detroit, as it turns inward, lured by the fast profits of SUVs in a domestic market fueled by cheap gasoline. Even as Ford quits big markets such as Indonesia, Toyota is doubling down on developing nations.
Indeed, Toyota spent $3 billion this year to take full control of its long-time small-car partner Daihatsu, which it plans to wield it as a key weapon in the brewing emerging market battle.
Toyota is playing catch-up, but the upside is huge.
Today, global light-vehicle sales are almost evenly split between emerging markets and mature ones, covering North America, Western Europe and Japan.
But emerging-market volume is expected to soar over the next nine years as mature markets stagnate, according to IHS Markit.
Mature-market sales totaled 40.5 million vehicles in 2015 and are expected to hover around that level until at least 2025, IHS Markit forecasts. By contrast, emerging-market sales, which hit 47.6 million units last year, will rise 45 percent to 69 million vehicles by 2025, IHS Markit predicts.
Toyota ranks behind the Volkswagen and Hyundai motor groups in global emerging-market sales. But the Japanese carmaker is expected to book a bigger jump in emerging-market sales over the next decade, according to IHS Markit forecasts. Toyota's volume should climb 44 percent, while Volks-wagen's sales advance 42 percent and Hyundai's increase 29 percent, IHS Markit predicts.
Yet even with the increase, Toyota would still trail its rivals by then, IHS Markit says.
Meanwhile, automakers are channeling virtually all production growth into emerging markets.
Toyota will boost emerging-market production 37 percent to 4.01 million vehicles by 2023, from 2.93 million in 2015, according to LMC Automotive. Meanwhile, mature-market production will drop to 3.88 million vehicles by then, from 4.05 million last year.
Last year, Toyota held top shares in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, according to IHS Markit. But it hadn't cracked the top three in China or India, in addition to Latin America. Toyota was No. 3 in Africa, behind Renault-Nissan and Hyundai.