Toyota regains global auto sales crown

Toyota on Monday regained the global sales crown lost when the 2011 Japanese tsunami devastated its supplies as US rival General Motors saw its share of the global market shrink.

Toyota first overtook GM as the world's biggest carmaker in 2008, a position GM had held for 77 consecutive years.

A year later, GM was forced to restructure under bankruptcy protection and has shed a number of unprofitable brands.

While the largest US automaker is once again making record profits, its sales have been hit by a deep downturn in Europe, the reduction in its offerings and a decision not to chase market share with costly incentives and low-margin fleet sales.

"As I said last year, I didn't necessarily want to be number one in sales as I wanted to be number one in profitability -- that's what we focus on," GM chief Dan Akerson told reporters on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show.

GM said its share of the global auto market fell 0.4 points to 11.9 percent in 2012 despite sales that grew 2.9 percent to 9.2 million vehicles.

Akerson once again dismissed rumors that GM plans to sell its German Opel brand to French ally PSA Peugeot Citroen and said he is planning to expand both sales and market share in 2013.

China, which has surpassed the United States as the world's largest auto market, is a key to that strategy and Akerson noted that GM grew sales and share there last year.

"We rolled out seven new models in Brazil and South America, so we're profitable there," he said after the launch of the new Corvette.

"North America had a good year. We expect with the new products that we will see some share gains."

GM has managed to hang onto the number two spot in worldwide sales, but German rival VW -- which aspires to be the world's biggest automaker by 2018 -- is not far behind with sales up 11 percent in 2012 to 9.07 million.

Toyota maintains a much larger lead and has forecast its 2012 sales will jump 22 percent to 9.7 million vehicles.

"Last year was a breakout year for us in a number of ways," said Jim Lentz, head of Toyota Motor Sales USA.

While it's great to be back on top again, Lentz insisted that "it's not that big of a deal."

"I don't really look at the global sales crown very much," he told AFP on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show.

"I'm sure we'll have a cup of coffee and say 'wasn't that great?' but by lunch we'll have forgotten about it and be back to business."

While Toyota also set new records for vehicle productions, sales and vehicle launches in the United States last year, Lentz said the key measure is how the company connects to customers.

"The important number is how we're doing with retail customers," Lentz said in an interview, noting that the Toyota brand was the number one US retailer in 2012 as sales grew 27 percent.

The group's total US sales topped two million vehicles and captured 14.4 percent of the US market, placing it in second place behind GM's fleet-fueled 17.9 percent stake.

GM's international operations -- Asia-Pacific, Africa and the Middle East -- posted the biggest gains in 2012, with sales up 10.1 percent at 3.6 million while its share was flat at 9.5 percent.

Sales fell 8.2 percent in Europe to 1.6 million vehicles, while GM's share narrowed by 0.2 points to 8.5 percent, the biggest US automaker said in a statement.

North American sales rose 3.2 percent to just over three million, though GM's share of its home market fell 1.5 points to 16.9 percent.

Sales in South America shrank 1.9 percent to just over a million vehicles, while GM's share of the region fell 0.8 points to 18 percent.

Despite losing the global sales crown, GM earned a consolation prize Monday: its compact luxury sedan, the Cadillac ATS, was named "North American Car of the Year" at the auto show -- with Toyota not on the shortlist for the prestigious award.

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