Volkswagen might regard the Golf as its "most important model" and a "global phenomenon", according to CEO Dr Martin Winterkorn but, in global sales terms, it is now playing second fiddle to the Passat.

The importance of developing markets like China, Russia and the Middle East, where sales are growing rapidly and the preference is for saloons [sedans] rather than hatchbacks, means the Passat is now VW's top-selling model and will continue to be so, despite the imminent introduction of a redesigned Golf.

VW sold 900,000 Golfs in 2011 compared with 1.15m Passats and, though the gap might close a little with the arrival of a new Golf, it will not be sufficient to change the balance of power.

The Golf is essentially a car for Europe, the main continent in the world for hatchbacks. Germany alone sells 258,000 a year, almost a third of the global total. And, although China is the second-largest market for the Golf, it is the old Mk 4 launched in 1997, which is still built and sold there.

The UK is number two in the world for modern Golfs: half of VW GB's 180,000 sales in 2011 were of the Golf in its various variants, with the vast majority being hatchbacks. Contrast that with America, which sells only 30,000 Golfs a year - half of them GTIs - but 150,000 Golf-related, Mexican-built Jetta compact saloons.

The new Golf will be built for the majority of markets at Wolfsburg and Zwickau in Germany while China and Brazil will continue to churn out the Mk 4 for local consumption.

Meanwhile, the European Passat continues to be made in Germany but the United States and China are becoming increasingly important production centres for a less sophisticated version of the car. VW's American plant at Chattanooga will this year turn out 150,000 Passats for the home market, South Korea and the Middle East, and there are plans to expand this to 180,000 in 2013, while China continues to supply the bulk of demand for its domestic market.