Toyota, which is scheduled to release first-quarter numbers next week, dethroned GM to retake the top spot in 2012, a year in which VW posted record sales and came within 190,000 vehicles of beating GM.
GM said Tuesday that it sold 2.36 million cars and trucks across the globe from January through March, an increase of 3.6 percent over the first quarter of last year. VW global sales rose 5 percent to 2.27 million vehicles, but the company cautioned that markets outside North America and China, particularly in Europe, "are becoming even more difficult."
Car sales are sagging across Europe because of the debt crisis and a broad recession. Governments have slashed spending and unemployment has soared to record levels, as much as 50 percent of young workers in some countries.
Companies including GM and Ford have cut back on operations in Europe to off-set sales declines.
GM's growth was led by Cadillac, with sales worldwide up 26 percent. Chevrolet, which makes up 73 percent of company sales, grew just under 1 percent over last year's record numbers. It was Chevy's 10th straight quarter of record global sales, the company said.
Sales growth exceeded the 1.5 percent growth in total worldwide auto sales, according to GM.
Last year Toyota sold 9.7 million cars and trucks worldwide to beat GM's 9.29 million. VW, riding strong growth in North America and China, finished a close third, selling a record 9.1 million vehicles.
But analysts say economic trouble in Europe is likely to slow VW's growth and keep the automaker in third place this year.
Toyota sales also could be hurt in China, where they've been sagging due to a territorial despite between the two countries.
Both GM and Toyota saw higher sales last year, but Toyota's growth was far greater as it rolled out new versions of popular models like the Camry. GM executives promised sales growth this year, especially in the U.S. Both companies say publicly that they don't care about who wins, but concede that the crown is an important morale booster for employees.
GM was the top-selling carmaker for more than seven decades before losing the title to Toyota in 2008. But GM retook the sales crown in 2011 when Toyota's factories were slowed by an earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The disaster left Toyota dealers with few cars to sell. The company has since recovered.