PARIS -- Two years ago, Carlos Ghosn said Renault-Nissan Alliance would be one of the top three global automakers by 2018. That prediction has come true a year early, largely due to the addition of Mitsubishi in 2016. Now Ghosn believes the alliance could soon pass Volkswagen Group and Toyota to become the best-selling car company.
"We have been among the top three carmakers since January in sales volume, and we expect to be in the top spot by midyear -- although this was not our goal," Ghosn told shareholders at Renault's annual meeting last week.
Through the first four months, the alliance is close to the top two. According to market research company JATO Dynamics, VW Group has sold 3.32 million vehicles, Toyota 3.06 million and Renault-Nissan 3.02 million. JATO uses a combination of vehicle registrations and retail sales to arrive at its figures.
Felipe Munoz, global automotive analyst at JATO, said it was uncertain whether Renault-Nissan alliance could rise to No. 1 this year. However, he ranks Renault-Nissan ahead of VW Group and Toyota in terms of future growth, given the company's strength in SUVs and electric vehicles, and huge potential in China and other emerging markets.
Renault-Nissan "is pointing in the right direction in many ways," Munoz said, "They are managing their brands very well. Where Renault is weak, Nissan is strong, and vice versa."
Barring mergers or acquisitions, Renault-Nissan could stay in the top three for some time. General Motors, now No. 4, is scaling back to focus on domestic operations though the expected sale of European brands Opel and Vauxhall to PSA Group and its withdrawal from the Indian market.
Ghosn's success has been more than matter of purely adding Mitsubishi Motors, which sold about 934,000 vehicles in 2016, to the alliance after Nissan took a controlling stake last fall.
Overall, through April, the alliance's global sales have increased by 8 percent year over year, while Toyota is up 6 percent and VW Group down 1 percent.
Among its individual brands, Nissan is up 7 percent, Renault 10 percent, Mitsubishi 5 percent and Dacia 7 percent, according to JATO. Russia's best-selling brand, Lada, which is now fully consolidated into Renault's balance sheet, has increased by 8 percent as the Russian market shows signs of reversing steep declines. Nissan's premium brand, Infiniti, is up 24 percent and Renault's South Korean brand Samsung increased 38 percent. Nissan's Datsun, the alliance's smallest brand, showed a decline through April of 2 percent.
SUVs have been the fastest growing segment in recent years, and the alliance has the largest global market share in that category, at 12 percent, according to JATO. The Nissan X Trail is the world's best-selling SUV, and vehicles such as the Dacia Duster and Renault Kwid appeal to emerging markets in India, Brazil and the Middle East, Munoz said. "SUVs are driving global growth, and they are very strong in that segment," he said.
While electric vehicle sales remain small, the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf are market leaders and if EV sales soar as emissions regulations tighten, the alliance will benefit.
Yet VW Group remains formidable, Munoz said, with strengths including its sales leadership in Europe, where it is No. 1, and in China, its largest market. It is also becoming more competitive in the SUV and crossover segments, with models such as the VW Atlas and upcoming T-Roc, Seat Ateca and upcoming Arona, and the Skoda Kodiaq and soon-to-be-launch Karoc.
Auto executives often say that they are not pursuing sales volume for its own sake. Bragging rights aside, however, the benefits of scale include increased leverage with component suppliers and higher returns on research and development spending. Automakers can also spread out the fixed costs of introducing new models.
"If we can go to our suppliers and say, we are no longer asking for 100,000 or 200,000 parts, but we are asking for 400,000 parts because we are bringing in the AvtoVAZ volume," Jeremie Papin, an alliance executive who is responsible for financial and corporate strategy and business development, said in an interview this spring. "The prices that we get are meaningfully different on what is still 70 percent of the cost of a car."