International trade in motor cars

From Statistics Explained

Data from August 2012. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database.

The car industry is of prime importance to the economy of the European Union (EU) and plays a major role in international trade. New and used motor cars accounted for about 6 % of the total value of all extra-EU exports in 2011, but less than 2 % of the total value of all extra-EU imports.

This article describes the development of trade in motor cars both within the EU (intra-EU trade) and outside of the EU (extra-EU trade). It shows that the USA, China and Japan are the EU's main trading partners while among EU Member States Germany is the leading exporter of cars.

Figure 1: EU and other major players in world-wide trade in motor cars, 2010
(EUR 1 000 million) - Source: Comext

Main statistical findings

Table 1: Extra EU-27 trade of motor cars, 2000-2011
(EUR million) - Source: Comext
Figure 2: Extra EU-27 trade of motor cars, main trading partners' shares for exports, 2011
(%) - Source: Comext
Figure 3: Extra EU-27 trade of motor cars, main trading partners' shares for imports, 2011
(%) - Source: Comext
Table 2: Extra EU-27 trade of motor vehicles, by category, 2011
(EUR million) - Source: Comext

In 2011, the EU exported motor cars worth EUR 93.8 billion. Imports in that same year amounted to roughly a quarter of that value (EUR 24.2 billion), giving an EU trade surplus of EUR 69.6 billion.

The value of extra-EU exports of motor cars increased by an average 25 % per year between 2009 and 2011. During the same period, extra-EU imports grew at a much slower pace, at an average 3 % per year.

In 2011, the United States remained the EU's main partner for motor car exports (21 % of the total), just ahead of China (19 %). Together with Russia (8 %) and Switzerland (7 %) they counted for more than half of the EU market. Since 2009, EU motor car exports to China and Russia have grown particularly rapidly (respectively +47 % and +40 % per year).

Over a quarter (28 %) of all extra-EU motor car imports in 2011 came from Japan, followed by the United States (20 %), South Korea and Turkey (both 14 %). Among the major partners for imports, Japan is the only one to show a decrease of trade during the latest years.

Within the broader ‘road vehicles’ category (which includes lorries, road tractors, motorcycles, trailers and motor-vehicle parts), motor cars represented 60 % of extra-EU exports and 47 % of extra-EU imports in 2011. Parts and accessories of motor vehicles had a share of 23 % and 29 % respectively.

Germany was responsible for over half (60 %) of total extra-EU motor car exports; apart from Germany, the United Kingdom was the only Member State to show a positive trade balance of noticeable size.

At the same time, Germany was also the biggest importer of motor cars in 2011; about one third of the total value of extra-EU imports can be ascribed to Germany, well ahead of Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Trading partners

In 2011, the USA remained the number one partner for extra-EU exports (see Figure 2) with a share of 21 % (close to EUR 20 billion). During the latest years China overtook Russia and Switzerland to became the second export market for EU cars (19 % share) due to a particularly strong growth. Starting from a low level in absolute terms, exports to China displayed an impressive average growth rate between 2000 and 2011 of 48 % per year.

In 2011, over a quarter (28 %) of extra-EU motor car imports came from Japan (see Figure 3), well ahead of the USA (20 %) and South Korea (14 %). Imports from the USA and from Mexico have been growing at an average 16 % per year, between 2009 and 2011. Imports from South Africa increased even faster during the same period (+24 % per year on average). The strongest relative growth was registered for imports from Morocco (imports quintupled between 2009 and 2011) but absolute values remained relatively low.

Contribution of Member States

Looking at the 2011 exports of motor cars by the individual Member States (see Table 1), Germany alone was responsible for well over half (60 %) of the EU total. The United Kingdom, ranking second, registered about a fifth of the German export value with a share of 13 %. In relative terms, i.e. compared to their total extra-EU trade, exports of motor cars from countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Lithuania were fairly significant.

The majority of EU Member States showed a considerable increase of motor cars exports between 2009 and 2011: exports grew particularly fast in Cyprus and Bulgaria, although their shares remain of minor importance. Conversely, the value of car exports showed a reduction in only 3 Member States over the same period, Greece (-33 %), Finland (-13 %) and Malta (-11 %), while exports from Ireland remained nearly stable.

With a value of EUR 7.7 billion, Germany’s share in total EU car imports was the most significant (32 % of the EU total), followed by Belgium and Italy, both with shares above 10 %. Looking at the development between 2009 and 2011, German imports displayed a continuous annual increase (11 % on average), with a sharp rise between 2010 and 2011. Luxembourg stands out as the Member State where imports have experienced the most noticeable relative increase (34 % per year on average), followed by the Czech Republic (24 %).

Ten Member States featured trade deficits in 2011, the largest were registered by the Netherlands, Italy and Slovenia, with values ranging between EUR 400 million and EUR 800 million.

Road vehicles

‘Road vehicles’ - cars and other motor vehicles, as well as cycles - represented 10 % (EUR 155.9 billion) of total extra-EU exports and 3 % (EUR 51.4 billion) of total extra-EU imports in 2011 (see Table 2). All subcategories of ‘road vehicles’ generated trade surpluses except ‘motor cycles and cycles’, which accumulated a deficit of EUR 3.7 billion.

‘Motor cars and other motor vehicles’ is the main category of ‘road vehicles’, with a share of around 60 % of exports and 77 % of imports. ‘Parts and accessories of motor vehicles’ follows with shares of around 25%.

In relative terms, two sectors are noteworthy: ‘motor cycles and cycles’ are mainly imported (11 % of road vehicle imports), whereas ‘road vehicles, not elsewhere specified’, such as road tractors are mainly exported (4 % of road vehicles exports).

Data sources and availability

Products of the road vehicles sector are defined according to the fourth revision of the Standard international trade classification. They include divisions for 781 motor cars and other motor vehicles for transporting people; 782 motor vehicles for the transport of goods and special-purpose motor vehicles; 783 road vehicles, not elsewhere specified (tractors, etc); 784 parts and accessories of motor vehicles; 785 motor cycles and cycles, motorized and non-motorized; invalid carriages, as well as 786 trailers and semi-trailers.

EU data are compiled according to EU guidelines and may, therefore, differ from the national data published by the Member States.


The automobile industry remains of prime importance for the EU, producing about a quarter of the world total of cars. The industry accounts for 5 % of employment in the EU and is an important contributor to many of the EU's national economies. In Germany, for example, the industry's share in manufacturing as a whole is close to 20 %, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association.

Trade in new and used motor cars accounts for a substantial part of the EU total, with close to 6 % of the total value of all extra-EU exports in 2011.

The industry has suffered from the financial crisis which started in 2008 and is also under pressure from environmental regulation to curb tailpipe emissions.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables

International trade data (t_ext)
International trade long-term indicators (t_ext_lti)
International trade (t_ext_lti_int)
International trade of machinery and transport equipment (SITC 7), by declaring country (tet00009)
EU27 trade by Member State, by partner and by product group (t_ext_lti_ext)
Extra-EU27 trade of machinery and transport equipment (SITC 7), by Member State (tet00052)
Extra-EU27 trade of machinery and transport equipment (SITC 7), by main partners (tet00045)
International trade short-term indicators (t_ext_sti)
Imports of goods - machinery and transport equipment (teiet170)
Exports of goods - machinery and transport equipment (teiet070)


International trade long-term indicators (ext_lti)
EU trade by Member State, by partner and by product group (ext_lti_ext)
Extra-EU trade of machinery and transport equipment (SITC 7) by partner (ext_lt_mainmach)

Methodology / Metadata

External links