Which 10 automakers had the best sales last year?

In the U.S., we think of General Motors (GM 1.98%), Ford (F 6.10%), and Toyota (TM 0.69%) as the three biggest automakers -- and they are. 

Internationally, though, it's a bit of a different story. While all three are significant global players, the pecking order is considerably different -- and you might be surprised by some of the other names that made the top ranks. 

Customer and salesman shake hands inside a car dealership

Image source: Getty Images.

Here's the list, from 10th place to first by total global sales of "light vehicles" (cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs) in 2014.

10. Suzuki
Suzuki (SZKMF -3.27%) in 2012 gave up trying to sell its cars in the U.S. after years of poor sales, but it's still a significant player elsewhere, with 2.88 million vehicles sold in 2014. It's Japan's fourth-largest automaker, ahead of more familiar-to-us companies such as Mazda. And it has a huge presence in India, where its joint venture with local automaker Maruti holds roughly 50% of the market.

9. PSA Peugeot Citroen
Another automaker that might not be familiar to Americans, France's PSA Peugeot Citroen (PUGOY) has long been a significant player in Europe, and took home 2.94 million global sales in 2014. The company has struggled in recent years, but a rescue plan led to big investments from the French government and from China's Dongfeng Motor. It is now working to boost sales in China, India, and other emerging markets.

8. Honda
Honda (HMC 1.20%) needs no introduction to Americans, of course. Its Accord, Civic, and CR-V are regularly among U.S. best-sellers, and its presence here is significant. But globally, Honda might not be as big as you think, with 4.36 million vehicles sold in 2014. Its sales at home in Japan are far behind those of rival Toyota, and it has struggled to make inroads in China.

7. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) is the company that resulted from the mashup of Italy's Fiat S.p.A. and the remnants of Detroit's old Chrysler Corp. It sold 4.75 million vehicles around the world last year, mostly in the U.S., Europe, and South America. But FCA is making huge investments in China and elsewhere, hoping to ride its Jeep and Alfa Romeo brands to a significant rise in global sales (and more important, profits) over the next few years. 

6. Ford Motor Company
Ford has long been America's second-place automaker and a significant player in Europe, where its small Fiesta and Focus are among the Continent's best-sellers. But it's playing catch-up in China, where it got a late start relative to the market leaders -- but where its products seem to be hitting a "sweet spot" among consumers. Look for Ford to build significantly on its 6.32 million in 2014 sales over the next few years.

5. Hyundai-Kia
The stocks of Korean auto powerhouses Hyundai (HYMTF 3.78%) and Kia Motors (NASDAQOTH: KIMTF) are separate, but the two are corporate siblings and track their global sales as a unit. They dominate South Korea's large market, have strong presences in China and India, and have significantly increased sales in the U.S. over the last several years. Together they sold 7.71 million vehicles in 2014.

4. Renault-Nissan
France's Renault (RNSDF 6.90%) and Japan's Nissan (NSANY 1.56%) have an "alliance" that includes a common CEO, Carlos Ghosn. Together they sold 8.47 million vehicles in 2014, thanks to Renault's strength in Europe, and Nissan's power in Japan, the U.S., and China -- Nissan led all Japanese brands in sales in China in 2014. 

3. General Motors 
General Motors sold 9.92 million vehicles worldwide in 2014, falling to third place in a race that it led as recently as 2011. But GM is under different management these days, and CEO Mary Barra is focused much more on the company's profitability than she is on its sales rankings. Given that GM's profits have trailed its global peers' for years, that's absolutely the right emphasis now.

2. Volkswagen Group 
Germany's mighty Volkswagen Group (VWAGY -0.47%) sold 10.14 million vehicles in 2014, falling slightly short of the top spot it has vowed to reach by 2018. Volkswagen and its huge portfolio of brands (which include Audi and Porsche) is not only the dominant player in Europe, it's also the leading company in China, where only GM is a serious rival. But it has struggled mightily in the U.S., where dated products and iffy reliability have held it back in a booming market. If it can reverse that trend, VW will have a clear shot at the crown.

1. Toyota 
Toyota sold 10.23 million vehicles in 2014, good enough to retain the sales crown it has held since 2012. Toyota has a commanding sales lead in its home market, a big presence in the U.S., and strong sales in a long list of Asia-Pacific, African, and Middle Eastern markets. Its weak spot? China, where it has been a focal point of anti-Japanese sentiments arising from a territorial dispute. In addition, Toyota is the world's most profitable automaker by a significant margin, ensuring it can continue to make big investments in technology to drive even more growth in future years.