updated 1/10/2008 3:45:49 PM ET 2008-01-10T20:45:49

Toyota said Thursday that it sold 9.37 million vehicles worldwide in 2007, which may have been enough to put it ahead of General Motors in the race for the "world's biggest automaker," a title GM has held for 76 years.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s group companies sold 7.1 million vehicles overseas last year, a 10 percent jump from the previous year, offsetting a 4 percent decline in sales in Japan at 2.26 million vehicles, the automaker said in a statement.

GM has not yet given its annual sales tally but earlier estimated 2007 sales would come to 9.3 million vehicles.

General Motors Corp. spokesman John McDonald would not comment on Toyota's announcement. He said the company would release its global sales numbers later this month.

Regardless of which automaker sold more vehicles last year, the rivalry between the two is still hot as the global auto industry is shifting its focus to burgeoning markets, including China, Russia, South America and other regions with a growing middle class.

GM is ahead of Toyota in China, where the Detroit-based automaker's sales rose 19 percent last year to 1.03 million vehicles, it said Thursday. To catch up, Toyota is expanding production in China.

Mature markets in North America and Europe, meanwhile, are likely to post slower growth, analysts say, and Japan's auto market is shrinking.

Toyota is setting up new overseas plants to achieve growth in new markets _ aiming to sell 9.85 million vehicles worldwide this year, up 5 percent from last year, under an ambitious plan it announced last month. Toyota executives last month also said they projected better vehicle sales in the U.S. this year.

Shoichiro Toyoda, a member of the founding family and former Toyota president, said gaining the top spot in the auto industry could be transient.

"We are not No. 1," he said when asked recently by The Associated Press how he felt about becoming the world's biggest automaker.

"It's just one moment," he said at a reception for auto manufacturers earlier this week. "We need to just keep working harder."

Other Toyota executives have also consistently brushed off questions about becoming No. 1.

Some company officials acknowledge they are even nervous about wresting the honors because of fears about a U.S. political backlash reminiscent of the "Japan-bashing" in the 1980s and 90s, when the nation was accused of taking jobs from American workers.

GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner, in an Internet chat with journalists last week, said his company will stay focused on its restructuring plan.

"Great cars, smart marketing, growth in the emerging markets. And hopefully that will keep us on top. If not, we'll come back to work the next day and work even harder," he said.

Last January, Wagoner told reporters that GM would not give up the title of world's largest automaker without a fight. But he said it will stay within its strategy to rely on quality products to make money and less on selling vehicles with incentives.

GM said last week that its factories produced 9.28 million vehicles worldwide last year, roughly 226,000 fewer than Toyota's 2007 production estimate of 9.51 million.

Toyota expects to have final production numbers later in January, but issued the 2007 estimate on Dec. 25 with just six days left in the year.

Also last week, Toyota deposed Ford Motor Co. as the No. 2 auto-seller in the U.S. in 2007.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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