Toyota takes world sales lead from GM

April 23, 2008 11:20:26 AM PDT
Toyota has taken the global automotive sales lead from General Motors, selling 2.41 million vehicles to GM's 2.25 million during the first three months of the year. GM said Wednesday its first-quarter sales dropped across the globe by less than 1 percent, but Toyota said its sales were up 2.7 percent during the January-March period.

Toyota Motor Corp., Japan's top automaker, said its global sales rose on the back of steady demand in Asia and strong demand in Europe.

General Motors Corp. barely won the global sales race with Toyota last year. But Toyota overtook GM as the world's top automaker as measured by global vehicle production in 2007.

GM said it posted record sales in three of its four regions, but a 10 percent drop in North America pulled down the overall numbers. Sales were up 8 percent outside of North America, the Detroit automaker said.

A record 64 percent of GM's sales in the latest quarter came from outside the United States.

"While the challenges of the U.S. economy continue to put pressure on the automotive industry there, we saw nearly 20 percent growth in the Latin America, Africa and Middle East, and 6 percent growth in the Asia Pacific region," John Middlebrook, GM vice president of global sales, said in a statement.

GM sold roughly 2.27 million vehicles worldwide in the first quarter of 2007.

Mike DiGiovanni, the company's executive director of global markets and industry analysis, said Toyota outsold GM in the first quarter of last year, too, yet GM was able to retake the lead by the end of the year.

He said the company is more focused on turning around its North American operations and becoming profitable worldwide than it is on beating Toyota.

"We obviously want to win, and we'd like to be No. 1 in sales at the end of the year," he said. "But really our focus right now is on profitable, sustainable growth across the world."

There may not be any relief in the U.S., though, in the near-term.

DiGiovanni said the company now is thinking second-quarter sales will be worse than the first quarter, largely because of rising gasoline prices. But he said the fundamentals are in place for a recovery in the second half of the year.

"This is clearly a headwind that we didn't anticipate to be at this level, so that's factored into our thinking as well," he told reporters and industry analysts on a conference call.

DiGiovanni said gasoline prices can't be predicted, but GM is preparing for increases.

"It's affected by so many factors, both political, societal, tangible in terms of what the actual physical reserves in the ground are and the cost to get at them. It's affected by refineries. It's affected by pipelines. It's affected by anything that can go wrong in the whole chain. And now it's affected by speculation, which is driving part of it. So I do not think this is something you can forecast," he said.

But DiGiovanni said GM does not use a "lower-bound" forecast anymore, and it had raised its internal forecast aggressively.

With new cars and crossover vehicles already out or coming this year, DiGiovanni said the company is well positioned to capture the market as it continues to shift away from trucks and sport utility vehicles.

"Our portfolio is moving in the direction the market is moving," he said. "Part of that's luck and part of that's planning."

Toyota, meanwhile, said its worldwide production expanded 7 percent from a year earlier to 2.54 million vehicles.

Toyota said output of popular, fuel-efficient small cars such as the Corolla model grew strongly in China, while production of pickup trucks rose steadily in Thailand during the quarter.

Some analysts say it's only a matter of time before Toyota - which built its business in the decades after World War II by imitating American automakers - overtakes GM in terms of annual global sales as well as production.

GM shares rose 62 cents, or 3 percent, to $21.13, in midday trading Wednesday while Toyota fell 56 cents, or 0.56 percent, to $100.

In the Japanese fiscal year through March 2008, Toyota's global output rose 6.4 percent from a year earlier to 9.66 million vehicles.

Honda Motor Co., Japan's No. 2 automaker, said its global production rose 4.5 percent from a year ago to 1.02 million vehicles in the January-March quarter.

Nissan Motor Co. said its global output rose 9.4 percent from a year ago to 950,878 vehicles during the quarter.