- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

DETROIT (AP) — 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 yesterday 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 will 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 Edmunds.com.

“GM is probably going to have some recovery in the second half of ‘08 in the U.S. market,” Mr. 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.”

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