Double-digit growth in North America and the Asia-Pacific region more than compensated for a downturn in Europe and tepid growth in South America, pushing full-year 2012 global vehicle sales to 81.8 million units, a 5.2% gain from 2011.

North America experienced the largest year-to-year change, with deliveries up 12.4%. The U.S., the world’s fourth fastest-growing market last year, was the main catalyst in the region, with sales increasing 13.4% to nearly 14.8 million.

Canada and Mexico deliveries, up 5.9% and 9.4% respectively, also contributed to the region’s positive results.

North America’s 17.5 million sales, representing a 1.9 million increase from prior-year, accounted for 21.4% of global vehicle volume, up from 20% in 2011.

Sales in the Asia-Pacific region rose 10.3%, as many markets posted solid gains over 2011, when vehicle supply was hampered by natural disasters in Japan and Thailand.

The region was home to the three fastest growing markets last year: Japan (+27.5%), Indonesia (+24.8%), and Thailand, where a growing economy and favorable year-over-year comparisons with a flood-plagued 2011 combined for a 79.1% surge in sales to a record 1.4 million units.

Japan remained the world’s third-largest market, with its 5.3 million deliveries accounting for 6.6% of global volume, compared with 5.4% the prior year.

China, the world’s largest market, saw sales rise 4.6% to a record 19.3 million vehicles. The growth rate was considerably higher than 2011’s 2.6%, but continues to reflect the market’s current stabilization after several years of massive gains.

China’s share of world sales fell to 23.6% from prior-year’s 23.8%, but the Asia-Pacific region collectively accounted for 43.6% of 2012 global sales, up two share points.

In Europe, where volume fell 5.9%, Russia and the U.K (+3.8%) were the only major markets to post gains. Deliveries in Russia rose 10.4%, to a record 3.1 million units, making it the region’s second-largest market behind Germany, off 3.3% to 3.4 million.

Overall, Europe accounted for 23.2% of global deliveries, the first time in at least a decade the region’s tally equated to less than a quarter of world volume.

South America’s largest market, Brazil, recorded a 4.6% rise to 3.8 million units and retained its No.4 global ranking.

But a 6% downturn in the region’s second-largest market, Argentina, combined with slower growth rates in several smaller markets, capped South America’s sales gain at just 2.6%, compared with 7.7% in 2011. Total volume of 5.9 million vehicles gave the region 7.2% of the world market.

Toyota was the world’s top seller in 2012. The auto maker’s record 9.75 million deliveries, a 22.6% increase over its tsunami-capped 2011 total, accounted for nearly 12% of global volume.

Falling to second place was General Motors, despite a 2.9% hike to 9.3 million units. Volkswagen followed, posting an 11.2% gain to 9.1 million vehicles.

jsousanis@wardsauto.com