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Toyota ends GM's 77-year reign as global sales leader

Toyota Motor Corp. sold more cars and trucks worldwide than any other automaker last year, seizing the crown General Motors Corp. held for 77 years. But with its overall sales having fallen for the first time in 10 years and the entire industry mired in a slump, there's little for the Japanese company to celebrate.

GM said Wednesday it sold 8,355,947 cars and trucks in 2008, falling about 616,000 vehicles short of the 8.972-million Toyota announced Tuesday. GM said the shortfall was mainly caused by the economic downturns in the United States and Europe that slashed vehicle demand in those markets, where Toyota doesn't have as large a presence.

Mike DiGiovanni, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis, downplayed the significance of the drop to No. 2, saying that the automaker is focused on profitability rather than sales volume.

"I don't think being No. 1 in vehicle sales means much at all to the American consumer," DiGiovanni said in a conference call with reporters and analysts. "I think what matters most to the consumer is strong brands and strong products."

Detroit-based GM, which has closed plants and laid off workers to cut production as it faces the worst U.S. auto market in more than 25 years, received a $13.4-billion lifeline from the federal government last month. But the bailout requires GM to submit a plan for long-term viability, and the loan may be called back if the government hasn't determined by March 31 that the plan can succeed. GM received the second piece of its government loan package Wednesday, a $5.4-billion installment.

Global sales totals for other major automakers were not available late Wednesday.

Toyota's overall global sales fell 4 percent for 2008, marking that automaker's first decline in a decade.

GM posted an 11 percent drop in global sales, including a 21 percent drop in North America and a 6.5 percent drop in Europe.

Those declines were partially offset by a 3.2 percent increase in sales at GM's Latin America, Africa and Middle East region, and 2.7 percent growth in Asia-Pacific sales.

Toyota's move into the top sales spot wasn't unexpected. The automaker nearly leapfrogged GM in 2007, selling only about 3,000 fewer vehicles than the U.S. company did that year.

DiGiovanni said it's entirely possible that GM could regain the No. 1 spot once U.S. and European markets recover and sales in key emerging markets pick up.

"That story has yet to be written," DiGiovanni said. "Nobody knows what's going to happen."

Toyota ends GM's 77-year reign as global sales leader 01/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 10:59pm]
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