Toyota takes 1Q world sales lead from General Motors

DETROIT — Toyota took the global sales lead from General Motors in the first quarter, capitalizing on growth in China and Europe as GM saw its North American sales drag down gains in other markets.

Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday it sold 2.41 million vehicles in the January-March period, compared with General Motors Corp.'s 2.25 million, prompting one industry analyst to predict that 2008 would be the year Toyota unseats GM in global sales.

Toyota reported steady demand in Asia and strong demand in Europe, while GM said it had record sales in its regions outside of North America.

GM barely won the global sales race with Toyota last year, but Toyota overtook it as the world's top automaker as measured by global vehicle production in 2007.

The sales numbers didn't surprise GM. Mike DiGiovanni, the company's executive director of global markets and industry analysis, said GM expected to be outsold in the first quarter, pointing out that the same thing happened from January through March last 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."

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, with the company reporting nearly 20 percent growth in the Latin America, Africa and Middle East region, 6 percent growth for Asia Pacific operations and 3 percent growth in Europe.

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

The figures show that it's likely Toyota will outsell GM worldwide this year, even if the U.S. economy recovers in the second half, said Jesse Toprak, chief industry analyst for the auto information site

"GM is probably going to have some recovery in the second half of '08 in the U.S. market," Toprak said. "That's not going to be significant enough to make up the difference, and also Toyota will recover as well if the whole market recovers here."

Toyota's U.S. sales weren't hurt as badly by the economic downturn as GM's were, dropping only 5.6 percent for the quarter compared with GM's 10.9 percent decline, according to Autodata Corp.

GM on Wednesday issued a more pessimistic forecast in the U.S. than it had previously, predicting that record high gas prices could drive second-quarter sales below first-quarter levels.

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

But he said the fundamentals are in place for a recovery in the second half of the year with the federal government's economic stimulus checks and interest rate cuts taking full effect.

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, which built its business in the decades after World War II by imitating American automakers, 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.

GM shares rose 42 cents, or 2 percent, to $20.93, in afternoon trading Wednesday while Toyota fell 95 cents, or 0.94 percent, to $99.61.

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.

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