Great Expectations: Automakers are once again chasing sky-high sales

"The bigger concern is not growing fast enough," says Kevin Wale, president of GM China, which recently announced plans to double sales to five million vehicles by 2016. "If you overreach in one year, then the next you catch up," Wale adds.

But it's not all blue skies. Some worry that down the line, the Chinese government could decide that its domestic industry has gained all it needs from the multinationals (who are required to partner with local automakers) and summarily kick them out. Already, there's pressure to create China-exclusive brands, something GM has done with its new Baojun ("treasured horse") marque and Volkswagen is rumored to be doing with a new line called Kaili.

The United States and other more established markets are no less risky places to expand. With overall volume more or less stagnant, picking up sales here requires stealing market share from equally motivated competitors. Surging brands like Hyundai and Subaru have done it the right way, but many companies have resorted to incentives and entered too many new segments. In the end, there will be losers.

"Not everyone's going to reach their targets," Hall says, adding, "You hit your sales targets when you have one or more of your competitors helping you."

And then there are obstacles to growth that are impossible to predict. In early March, Toyota released a five-year plan that projected a seemingly prudent seven percent uptick in its global sales volume by 2015. Three days later, a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out a sizable portion of the company's manufacturing capacity.

Ultimately, though, it seems that no economic depression, natural disaster, or political turbulence can permanently dampen automakers' fundamental desire to build more and more cars -- and the belief that they can sell all of them.

"If you're going to a football match, are you asking yourself if you're going to lose?" says VW's Klingler.

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