General Motors has lost the sole claim it held for 76 years as the world's auto sales leader, as totals for 2007 released today showed the...

Share story

DETROIT — General Motors has lost the sole claim it held for 76 years as the world’s auto sales leader, as totals for 2007 released today showed the company in a virtual tie with Toyota.

GM said it sold 9,369,524 vehicles worldwide last year, up 3 percent from 2006. Earlier this month, Toyota reported global sales of 9.37 million vehicles. The Japanese automaker said today it would not release more precise numbers.

“The race is too close to call,” Mike DiGiovanni, GM’s executive director of global market and industry analysis said during a conference call today. “I don’t think anybody knows at this point.”

Detroit-based GM has held the title of world’s largest automaker since 1931, but Toyota’s strong growth in the United States and GM’s U.S. sales decline helped Toyota move closer to the top spot in recent years.

Toyota’s share of the U.S. market has more than doubled since 1990, when it controlled only 7.5 percent with just over 1 million in sales, according to Ward’s AutoInfoBank. Its sales have grown briskly in recent years, sometimes by double-digit percentages, as people bought its smaller, fuel-efficient cars with a reputation for reliability. By 2007, Toyota controlled 16.3 percent of the U.S. market, selling 2.6 million vehicles.

GM, while still the U.S. sales leader, has seen its U.S. market share drop dramatically since 1990, when it controlled about 35 percent by selling nearly 5 million vehicles. Last year GM’s share was roughly 23.8 percent, with sales of 3.8 million vehicles.

Aaron Bragman, an analyst with the consulting firm Global Insight, said GM and Toyota have expanded almost evenly in most emerging global markets, but GM has been hurt by sales declines in North America.

“A lot of that volume reduction has come here,” Bragman said. “They did very well in every other market except North America.”

Much of GM’s U.S. decline has been deliberate, he said, as the company cut incentives and reduced low-profit sales to rental car companies. GM’s U.S. sales last year were 6 percent below 2006 figures, due largely to a 108,000 cut in fleet sales.

“If they had kept that fleet volume up, it wouldn’t even be a competition,” Bragman said.

Globally, GM said it did well in 2007, reporting the second-best sales total in its 100-year history. For a third straight year and the fourth time ever, GM sold more than 9 million vehicles worldwide last year.

The company said it set a sales record in China last year, selling just over a million vehicles, and doubled its sales in Russia to a record 258,000. It also set a record in Brazil, where it sold nearly 500,000 cars and trucks, the company said.

“What we’re really focused on here is running our business for the long-term profitably and growing,” DiGiovanni said. “I think we’ve done a heck of a job in positioning ourselves very well in where the growth in the world is in terms of the emerging markets, particularly Latin America, Asia Pacific, China, Russia, India.”

GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner has pledged to defend the global sales title, but said the company would not abandon its U.S. strategy of reducing incentives and low-profit sales to rental car companies in order to win.

“Great cars, smart marketing, growth in the emerging markets. And hopefully that will keep us on top. If not, we’ll come back to work the next day and work even harder,” Wagoner said earlier this month.

The title in coming years likely will be decided by sales in burgeoning markets such as China, Russia, South America and other regions with a growing middle class.

Mature markets in North America and Europe, meanwhile, are likely to post slower growth, analysts say, and Japan’s auto market is shrinking.

Toyota is setting up overseas plants to achieve growth in new markets — aiming to sell 9.85 million vehicles worldwide this year, up 5 percent from last year, under an ambitious plan it announced last month. Toyota executives also said they projected better vehicle sales in the U.S. this year.

Shoichiro Toyoda, a member of the founding family and former Toyota president, said gaining the top spot in the auto industry could be transient.

“We are not No. 1,” he said when asked recently by The Associated Press how he felt about becoming the world’s biggest automaker.

“It’s just one moment,” he said at a reception for auto manufacturers this month. “We need to just keep working harder.”

Other Toyota executives have also consistently brushed off questions about becoming No. 1.

Some company officials acknowledge they are even nervous about wresting the title because of fears about a U.S. political backlash reminiscent of the “Japan-bashing” in the 1980s and ’90s, when the nation was accused of taking jobs from American workers.

The final winner in the 2007 sales race may never be known since Toyota refused to give a number down to the last vehicle sold.

“There’s not going to be a more precise number,” Toyota spokesman John McCandless said today. “Traditionally that’s the way Toyota Motor Corp. reports sales.”

Earlier this month, Toyota deposed Ford as the No. 2 auto seller in the U.S. in 2007.