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updated 1/9/2012 8:10:50 AM ET 2012-01-09T13:10:50

An earthquake and tsunami, record floods, a strengthening yen — Japanese automakers endured it all in 2011, making it a year that most of them would rather forget. Toyota Motor‘s worldwide sales fell a projected 6 percent and the company slipped from its spot as the world’s largest automaker. Yet despite all the disruptions to production and the currency squeeze that made its vehicles more expensive outside Japan, Toyota’s trusty-but-bland Corolla once again was the world’s best-selling car.

Manufactured in 15 countries (including at a new plant in Mississippi) and sold in more than 140 markets, the Corolla is the perfect definition of an economy car: it’s small, inexpensive, fuel-efficient and reliable. In 2011, Toyota sold a projected 1.02 million Corollas, down about 2 percent from the prior year, according to IHS Global Insight’s year-end forecast.

It was an even tougher year for Honda Motor, which was especially hard hit by parts shortages related to the year’s natural disasters. Disappointing reviews for its redesigned Civic compact also hurt. Civic sales fell 12.5 percent from 2010. Two years ago, Civic was the fifth most popular car in the world. This year, with sales of 555,071, it’s not even in the Top 10 anymore.

Forbes.com slideshow: See which cars sell best around the globe

Competitors pounced on the Japanese makers’ troubles. Volkswagen of Germany and Korean carmakers Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors all surged ahead in the global sales race. The Hyundai Elantra, known as the Avante in Korea, is now nearly as popular as the Corolla, with a projected 1.01 million copies sold. Two years ago, it wasn’t even in the Top 10.

“When these natural disasters happened, consumers around the world started to realize, ‘Wow, there’s other really good product out there besides just Toyota and Honda’,” said senior analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Global Insight.

Kia’s Rio subcompact, newly redesigned, is ranked fifth worldwide, with projected sales of 815,000, but about 500,000 of them are the previous generation Rio, built and sold in Iran by a joint venture partner, SAIPA, which controls half the Iranian market.

Volkswagen, which aims to become the world’s largest carmaker by 2018, is picking up momentum. Its redesigned lineup of small- and mid-sized vehicles struck a chord with car buyers around the globe in 2011, with three of them — the Jetta, the Golf and the Passat — among the world’s best selling cars.

One thing these top sellers have in common is that they are global models. That means they’re sold in many countries with only minor modifications to meet local regulations. The benefits are lower costs for development, tooling and production, and stronger brands. Both General Motors and Ford Motor have been moving to copy that strategy, and it’s paying off. Ford’s Focus and Fiesta rank fourth and sixth, respectively, while GM’s all-new Chevrolet Cruze is now the world’s ninth best-selling car.

The big question heading into 2012 is whether the market shifts that occurred during the past year are permanent, or whether companies like Toyota Motor and Honda Motor will reassert their industry dominance. Lindland thinks that will be more difficult for the Japanese because other companies have upped their games. “There’s no guarantee Toyota and Honda are going to pick up where they left off.”

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© 2012 Forbes.com


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