The Numbers Tell the Story: Who’s the Best Car Company in the World?

Tesla was the world’s eighth-most profitable car company in 2021, which is amazing for a company that only had two assembly plants running last year.

John McElroy, Columnist

April 21, 2022

6 Min Read
Mercedes-Benz GLC-SUV-22
Mercedes-Benz’s top-selling GLC helped German automaker post biggest per-unit profit in 2021.Mercedes-Benz

Do you know which automaker sells the most cars and trucks? Or which one rakes in the most revenue? Or who’s the most profitable? It’s hard to keep track these days, so let’s go through the latest list.

Toyota tops the list of who makes the most cars. It’s Number One in the world. It sold nearly 10.5 million vehicles in 2021, more than anyone else.

Next up is the Volkswagen Group, which has more brands than you can shake a stick at. There’s Volkswagen, of course, as well as Audi, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda, Bentley, Bugatti, Ducati and Lamborghini. They sold a combined 8.8 million vehicles.

In third place is the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. Put all their sales together and they delivered 7.8 million vehicles to customers, which is a formidable number. But remember, the Alliance is just that, an alliance. It’s not a company. It doesn’t issue an annual report. I really didn’t even want to include it on this list, but because so many people wonder how it stacks up against everyone else, it made the list.

Fourth place goes to the Hyundai Group, which includes Hyundai, Kia and Genesis. Together they sold 6.6 million vehicles, which is a lot. Even so, despite being the fourth largest automaker in the world, Hyundai doesn’t make a lot of money as you’ll soon see.

Toyota Corolla 20.jpg

Toyota Corolla 20

Fifth place goes to General Motors at nearly 6.3 million vehicles, followed by Stellantis at 6.1 million. Honda (4.1 million) is ahead of Ford (3.9 million) and BMW (2.5 million) and Mercedes-Benz (2.0 million) round out the top 10.

Measuring car sales is one way to rank the automakers of the world. Now let’s look at the top line: how much revenue each company generates every year. After all, some companies concentrate on expensive cars, so even if they don’t sell as many they can rake in a lot of revenue.

Whereas Toyota is Number One in the world when you look at sales, when measured by revenue ($253 billion) it drops to Number Two. And Volkswagen ($276 billion), which was in second place, steps up to Number One.

Then, about $100 billion behind the both of them, comes a middle group, led by Stellantis ($167 billion), which, by this measure, is now the world’s third largest car company.

Mercedes-Benz ($147 billion), ranked 10th in sales, jumps to the fourth place in revenue. And it’s kind of interesting to see that Ford ($136 billion), GM ($127 billion) and BMW ($122 billion) are all about the same size. After that, you come to the group that hasn’t cracked $100 billion in revenue.

Hyundai ($96 billion), which was Number Four in the world based on how many cars it sells, is only eighth in revenue. And Tesla ($54 billion) outearned Renault ($51 billion), even though Renault sold 1.6 million more vehicles than Tesla did. In fact, Tesla is not that far behind Nissan ($66 billion) and with two new assembly plants coming on stream in Austin, TX, and Berlin, Tesla should easily surpass Nissan in revenue before 2022 is over.

Now to profits. Who makes the most money?

Tesla Model-S 21.jpg

Tesla Model-S 21

Mercedes-Benz was the most profitable car company last year, putting nearly $26 billion on the bottom line. But last year Mercedes spun off its heavy-truck business and booked that as a $12.3 billion profit. That’s a one-time windfall event that’s not going to happen again. So, if you strip that out Mercedes would move down to sixth place.

Ranking second is Toyota, with tidy net profit of more than $19 billion, and Ford is right behind it with $17.9 billion. But last year Ford boosted its profits with a one-time windfall of Rivian stock worth more than $8 billion. Take that out and Ford would move from third to seventh place.

Next up is Stellantis, which put $14.5 billion on the bottom line. Not bad for a merger of three car companies that officially only got going at the beginning of last year.

BMW ($13.7 billion) ranks fifth and GM ($9.9 billion) is sixth.

Tesla ($5.5 billion) was the world’s eighth-most profitable car company in the world, which is amazing for a company that only had two assembly plants running last year. Even more amazing, Tesla was more profitable than either Honda ($4.9 billion) or Hyundai ($4.6 billion) even though they sold millions of more vehicles than it did.

OK, so now we’ve looked at sales, revenue and net profit. One more category to go. Who made the most profit on each car they sold? This is my favorite category because it’s a great measure of overall business efficiency, And the results here are fascinating.

Mercedes made the most profit per unit: $5,909 on average for every vehicle it sold. And that includes stripping out that big profit it made by selling off its heavy-truck business.

But look at who’s in second place on a profit-per-unit basis – Tesla, at $5,895.  BMW is third at $5,447.

Then comes the first of the full-line, mass-market companies. Ford, at $2,463, is in fourth place, and that, too, includes stripping out that big one-time profit from the Rivian stock.  Stellantis, at $2,372, is not too far behind Ford.

Then we come to VW ($1,914) and Toyota ($1,839) who are quite close to each other in the sixth and seventh spots. What I find so interesting is that this is an industry where manufacturing scale is supposed to lead to the lowest costs and the highest profits. Same goes for vertical integration. Everyone says it’s more profitable to make things in-house. But here we have the two companies with the highest manufacturing volumes, and who are the most vertically integrated of the traditional car companies, and yet the numbers show they really are not more profitable because of it.

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McElroy SQUARE_5

General Motors ($1,581) is in eighth place and it’s probably so far down the list because it sells a lot of low-margin cars in South America and China. That hot-selling Wuling Hong Guang Mini EV that is priced under $5,000 can’t have much margin in it.

Honda ($1,197) is in ninth place, and it’s surprising to see that Hyundai only makes a profit of $703 on each car it sells. It must make a lot of low-margin cars, too.

So, there you have it. How the top 10 automakers stack up against each other in four different categories, at least at this snapshot in time. No doubt the results will look different a year from now.

By the way, I did a video version of this, which you can find here:

John McElroy (pictured above, left) is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.


About the Author(s)

John McElroy


John McElroy is the president of Blue Sky Productions, which produces “Autoline Daily” and “Autoline After Hours” on and the Autoline Network on YouTube. The podcast “The Industry” is available on most podcast platforms.

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