Volkswagen defied the gloom in Europe and cemented its status among the global leaders of the auto industry, reporting record results and saying it sold more than eight million vehicles last year for the first time in its 75-year history.
VW, the top European automaker, said net income more than doubled to €15.4 billion, or $20.6 billion. Revenue soared almost 26 percent to €159 billion.
Pretax profit rose to €18.9 billion from €9 billion. Profit was aided by “positive effects” from equity investments and the valuation of its Porsche options, VW said.
The German company said unit sales rose almost 15 percent from 2010 to 8.3 million vehicles, led by the Volkswagen and Audi brands. The annual profits, revenue and unit sales were all records. VW said last week that 2012 had also gotten off to a positive start, with sales rising 1.3 percent in January from a year earlier.
Volkswagen’s sales move it to the No.2 spot worldwide, behind General Motors, which sold 9.03 million vehicles last year, and ahead of Toyota Motor, which was hamstrung by the earthquake and tsunami disaster last March. VW’s net profit was almost triple the $7.6 billion G.M. earned last year .
Volkswagen’s 2011 showing marked a sharp contrast with other mass-market carmakers in Europe.
The French automaker Peugeot and General Motors’ Adam Opel unit both lost money on their carmaking operations and revealed this week that they were talking about a tie-up to try to cut costs. Another French automaker, Renault, was barely profitable on its carmaking business.
Fiat, the Italian company, continues to make money from its Chrysler business in the United States, but the Italian company’s home factories are using only about 50 percent of their capacity, too little to make money in Europe.
Sergio Marchionne, Fiat’s chief executive, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera in an interview published Friday that Fiat might have to shutter two of its five domestic plants if it was unable to crack the U.S. market with its own cars. “Italian factories will survive only if we export to America,” he told the paper.
VW’s worldwide operations insulates it to some extent from the slumping European auto market, which is expected to contract in 2012 for a fifth straight year. For example, the company’s two Chinese joint ventures, Shanghai Volkswagen and FAW-Volkswagen, together sold 2.26 million vehicles in 2011, up nearly 18 percent from 2010.
But VW also did better than most of its peers in Europe. In Germany, the main bright spot in Western Europe, VW’s sales rose more than 11 percent; even in Western Europe excluding Germany, VW beat the prevailing trend, selling 7 percent more cars last year than in 2010.
“We know the car business is a volume and scale business and today Volkswagen is the only carmaker in Europe that has that scale,” Philippe Houchois, head of European auto industry research at UBS in London, said. Despite their strengths and ability to charge premium prices, “even BMW and Daimler don’t have the same scale.”
Noting that Volkswagen went through “years of pain” and heavy investment to get where it is, Mr. Houchois said the question for Europe’s weaker car industry players was whether they would have to go through the same convulsions.
He said it was somewhat misleading to think of Volkswagen as a mass-market carmaker, because the company’s brands include Audi and Porsche, which are more profitable than VW cars, as well as the truck makers MAN and Scania. He said that while the company’s overall 2011 operating margin, a measure of profitability, was about 7 percent, that figure disguised the wide variation between the Audi division, with a margin of more than 11 percent, and the VW division, which was likely on the order of 4-5 percent.
Volkswagen, based in Wolfsburg, Germany, said it was also raising its dividend on common shares to €3 from €2.20, and on preferred shares to €3.06 from €2.26. The figures announced Friday were a preliminary statement of 2011 results. It will provide detailed fourth-quarter data on March 12.
Christine Ritz, a Volkswagen spokeswoman, declined to give a breakdown of the contributions to profit of the equity investments and the revaluation of the Porsche options, saying those would be provided next month. But she noted that the equity investments included the China business, and said the contribution from the Porsche options — a put/call structure giving VW the right to buy the sports car maker — would be “on the same order of magnitude” as the €6.8 billion figure the company announced in September.
Volkswagen said in September that its management board had concluded that legal hurdles — including lawsuits and an investigation of Porsche’s former chief executive Wendelin Wiedeking by Stuttgart public prosecutors — would prevent the timely consommation of its planned merger with Porsche. Board members, it said, nonetheless “remain committed to the goal of creating an integrated automotive group with Porsche and are convinced that this will take place.”