GM, Toyota nearly tie as No. 1

January 24, 2008|By Rick Popely | Rick Popely,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- The tight battle for global sales leadership between General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. could rage for years and be settled in China, Russia, India and other emerging markets where the auto industry sees its greatest growth potential.

Toyota said today that it sold 9.366 million vehicles around the world last year, about 3,000 fewer than the tally from General Motors - the world's No. 1 automaker for 77 years.

As of late yesterday, Toyota had said it had sold about 9.37 million vehicles worldwide last year, making for an extremely tight race with GM, which said it sold 9,369,524 vehicles.

But Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco confirmed the extra digit today.

GM global sales

GM's global sales rose 3 percent for the year to its second highest ever, and Toyota's grew 6 percent to set a record.

The prospect of Toyota matching GM in global sales seemed remote 10 years ago when GM sold 8.2 million vehicles and Toyota 4.89 million. But Toyota has steadily chopped away at GM's lead, and many analysts predicted Toyota would become No. 1 last year or will this year.

Toyota also has whittled GM's U.S. sales lead to 1.2 million units last year from 3 million in 2002. The Toyota division could pass Chevrolet this year to become the top-selling U.S. brand. Chevrolet's lead shrank to 89,000 in 2007 from 1.1 million in 2002.

Mature markets such as the United States and Western Europe have far less growth potential, and sales in Japan last year fell to their lowest since 1982, in part because of an aging population.

But business is booming elsewhere in Asia, much of Latin America and eastern Europe, where cars are just becoming widely available to growing cohorts of middle-class buyers. GM leads Toyota in most of those markets, but David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, says they're still up for grabs.

Cole said the sales race is only part of the war between the two industry giants, who also are battling for supremacy in technology and efficiency, with a battle royal under way over fuel-saving engines.

Toyota has the lead in gas/electric technology, but GM is promising to be first to market with plug-in hybrids that can be recharged in household outlets. The two also are racing to develop vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which are viewed as a long-term alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

Where there is no contest between the two is in profit. Toyota posted net profit of $13.9 billion in its most recent fiscal year, which ended March 31, and GM lost $2 billion.

When GM reports year-end results for 2007 in a couple of weeks, analysts expect a record net loss because it wrote off nearly $39 billion in deferred tax assets in the third quarter.

Cole sees GM's financial results improving because it has learned how to operate like Toyota, as a global company that engineers cars for worldwide sale and can build them globally using the same type of assembly line and welding robots. GM formerly operated regionally, so a vehicle made in Europe couldn't be easily adapted to the U.S.

`They're teeing up'

One indication of GM's global integration is a Buick Riviera concept vehicle scheduled to be on display at the Chicago Auto Show. Designed in China, analysts expect it will become a production vehicle for China and the U.S. That global approach will save billions, Cole predicts, and the groundbreaking contract negotiated with the United Auto Workers union last fall will significantly cut U.S. labor costs.

"They're teeing up some very substantial profitability," Cole said. "They've had a crisis, but I think they've used it well."

Rick Popely writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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