Toyota looming in GM's mirrors

It's taken 76 years, but General Motors is on the verge of being supplanted as the world's biggest car-maker.

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Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Japanese rival Toyota is coming up fast on the rails, with the two companies reporting near-identical sales for 2007. GM said today that it sold 9,369,524 vehicles last year, 3% more than in 2006. Toyota said last week that it sold 9.37m cars (up 6%) but this was a rounded figure. So we won’t know for sure until next week, when Toyota is expected to provide more detail on its sales.

If the Japanese company has taken the top spot, it would be big news for the auto industry. GM has been the world’s biggest-selling car-maker for 76 consecutive years, so a changing of the guard would be a bit like the day when Bryan Adams’ ‘Everything I Do, I Do It For You’ finally got knocked off the number one spot after 16 weeks in 1991.

It would also mark the latest milestone in the once-great US company’s recent decline. The company has been haemorrhaging money for years as its core US market has dwindled – while Toyota has been racking up big profits ($14bn last year), GM lost an eye-watering $12bn in the last two years alone. It’s now in the midst of a turnaround plan in a desperate bid to return to profitability (that’s actually one of the reasons why it’s lost ground to Toyota – it’s been cutting out low-margin deals like rental-company sales).

Even if GM has managed to keep its nose in front this time, it’ll probably be no more than a temporary reprieve. Toyota is currently growing at a much faster rate, and expects to sell 10.4m vehicles in 2009 (which would be a new record for the industry).

But all is not lost for GM. It may be struggling in the US, but it’s enjoying big sales growth in emerging markets like India, China and Latin America. And perhaps it will be able to do a better job of turning itself around away from the limelight of the No.1 spot...

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