One hundred six billion dollars.
That's the amount -- at current exchange rates -- that Volkswagen Group (NASDAQOTH:VLKAY) plans to spend over the next five years in an all-out effort to become the world's undisputed automotive giant.
That's a staggering sum. At current share prices, it's almost enough to buy both Ford and General Motors (NYSE:GM) outright.
What is VW going to do with all of this money?
A massive investment in a massive expansion effort
What VW announced on Friday is that it plans to invest 85.6 billion euros, or about $106 billion, in "new models, environmentally friendly technologies and production facilities" -- in the next five years.
About two-thirds of that will go to more fuel-efficient vehicles and technologies, and to more environmentally friendly factories, VW said. A significant chunk will go toward expanding the Group's SUV range -- across several brands, presumably including VW, Audi, and Porsche -- and toward advanced powertrains, including hybrid and electric drivetrains. Across its huge portfolio of brands, VW is aiming to have 100 new or refreshed vehicles by the end of 2015.
VW is also investing a lot of money -- 23 billion euros -- in its factories, with upgrades planned to many existing facilities to improve quality and increase capacity. There are also new factories planned or under construction now, including a new Audi factory in Mexico and another plant in Poland. And another 22 billion euros will go toward "new production facilities and products" in China.
It's a ton of money, and it proves that VW is really serious about its longtime goal of becoming the top-selling automaker in the world.
But this spending spree is very different from the approaches being taken by VW's two main rivals, GM and Toyota (NYSE:TM).
If this is a race, someone forgot to tell Toyota and GM
Toyota was the world's top-selling automaker last year, and its on track to win the crown again in 2014. But is it spending big to keep pace with VW?
On the contrary: Toyota isn't building any new factories anywhere, despite the fact that it's generating massive profits right now. And the company has said emphatically that it won't be building any new factories until at least 2016. CEO Akio Toyoda took over in 2009 right after the global economic downturn -- and years of big spending -- had left Toyota with its first operating loss in 70 years.
Toyoda has blamed that loss on his predecessors' "blind pursuit of volume and high margins," and has vowed to proceed very carefully with any future expansion plans.
General Motors is a company that -- for decades -- emphasized the pursuit of market share above all else. But that approach was a big contributor to GM's downfall, and like Akio Toyoda, GM's current leaders are very mindful of the risks of making the same mistakes again.
Current GM CEO Mary Barra -- like her predecessor, Dan Akerson -- has repeatedly emphasized the importance of prioritizing profits over sales totals. GM is still a very large automaker, with deep pockets and massive global scale. It doesn't need to be first (or second) in the global sales race to achieve its goals -- and officially, its current leadership isn't interested in trying to outdo VW.
Unlike Toyota, GM is investing in new factories -- mostly in China, where expectations for that market's continued growth make such investments reasonable. It isn't building plants in North America, and it's actually closing one in Europe. At least outside of Asia, GM will make do with its existing production capacity for the foreseeable future, just like Toyota.
So does this mean VW wins?
It means that VW is likely to achieve its goal of building and selling more vehicles than any other automaker in a calendar year -- not this year, probably, but possibly next year, and almost certainly by 2016 or 2017.
But here's the larger question: Does it matter? Are the economies of scale available to an automaker that sells, say, 10.1 million vehicles really much different than those available to one that sells a mere 9.5 million? Not likely.
Toyoda and Barra would point to their companies' balance sheets -- and their experiences in the last global economic downturn. Both are determined to keep their companies in shape to sail smoothly through the next economic downturn. How will expansion-mad VW fare when the next economic storm threatens? We'll find out.
John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.