Image: Worker in Flint, Mich., GM plant.
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
GM executives say they are focused on keeping customers happy, not on the title. They remember the company's disastrous recent history, when it sold cars at a loss just to hold on to market share.
updated 1/24/2011 6:44:13 PM ET 2011-01-24T23:44:13

General Motors has a shot at being No. 1 again.

The resurgent automaker reported Monday that its worldwide sales last year came within 30,000 of beating Japanese rival Toyota, which took a big hit because of safety recalls.

GM is hiring, producing more and basking in a better reputation for quality. It expects to sell even more cars and trucks this year, putting it within reach of the title of biggest in the world — an honor it held for 76 years before losing it in 2008.

Regaining the global lead means a lot to workers on the assembly line in Flint, a town devastated by years of auto industry job losses. Just two years ago, they didn't know if their factory or even their company would survive.

Dana Rouse, a union official at the pickup truck factory here, called overtaking Toyota the Heisman Trophy of the auto business.

"We're going to take Toyota on, and the people in Flint are going to be a part of that," he said. "This is the birthplace of General Motors. We kind of take it a little more seriously than maybe some other towns."

GM executives say they are focused on keeping customers happy, not on the title. They remember the company's disastrous recent history, when it sold cars at a loss just to hold on to market share.

"Satisfying and retaining our customers and delivering world-class products is pretty much the fundamental business that we're in," GM North America President Mark Reuss said Monday at the factory. "The rest of it may come, may not."

Now GM is outselling Toyota in fast-growing China, and its U.S. business is bouncing back. To overtake Toyota, it needs a sales increase of half a percentage point, about the number of Chevy Silverado pickup trucks it sells per month in the U.S.

Toyota is still wounded from recalls of more than 10 million vehicles, mainly to fix gas pedals and floor mats that could make cars speed out of control. It was the only major automaker with lower U.S. sales in December, and it's uncertain when sales will recover.

Toyota said it was not concerned with beating GM.

"Our objective is to become No. 1 with the customers," spokesman Paul Nolasco said.

Dethroning Toyota, experts say, might also help GM with marketing, even if it adds little value to the business. Their advice: GM, which has shed four of its weaker brands in recent years, should focus not on size but on making money.

"The game plan has changed enormously," said Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist with BGC Partners in London. "Its future is not to be all things to all men in every part of the world. Its concentration is now related to the ability to make profits."

And taking the lead by growing too fast can be bad. Fast growth brought global leadership but ultimately cost Toyota, which has admitted it lost focus on quality as it overtook GM for the global sales lead.

Toyota sold 8.42 million vehicles worldwide in 2010, barely ahead of GM's 8.39 million. GM made an impressive turnaround from 2009, when it was forced to take nearly $50 billion in government help and go through bankruptcy.

GM's global sales grew by a dramatic 12 percent last year, and it turned a $4.2 billion profit in the first nine months of the year. Financial results for the final three months of 2010 aren't in yet, but more profit is expected.

Along the way, GM pulled off an initial public stock offering and added 9,000 U.S. workers. GM's sales in China were so strong that they outpaced the U.S. for the first time in the company's 102-year history.

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The federal government still owns about a third of the company and is gradually selling its GM stock on the open market.

So far, GM has stuck to its game plan. It has limited rebates and low-interest financing, and it's made money selling new models, such as the Chevrolet Equinox small SUV and Buick LaCrosse luxury sedan. Analysts say there's no reason to change now.

"At the end of the day you can accomplish that goal of beating Toyota without having to focus on market share," said David Whiston, an auto analyst with investment firm Morningstar. "If you focus on great product, the market share takes care of itself."

On Monday, GM recalled 750 laid-off workers for a third shift at the Flint assembly plant because of strong demand for the heavy-duty pickup trucks made there. The trucks are used mainly for construction, plowing snow and other work, and the increased demand is a sign of economic recovery. Other production increases could be coming, but GM won't go overboard by reopening closed pickup factories, Reuss said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: 2011: The year of the reborn minivan

  • Image: Dodge Caravan

    The minivan has been alternately pronounced dead and revived repeatedly as various alternatives have debuted and departed. But the van chugs onward, unassailable in its position as the best vehicle for transporting the maximum number of people in the least amount of space and with the least amount of fuel.

    Minivans are easier to park than long-snouted crossover SUVs, they have more fight-reducing elbow room inside and their sliding doors mean that the young’uns don’t inflict insurance claims on adjacent cars every time they climb in or out of the van.

    Are minivans cool? TODAY Moms weigh in

    Whether 2011 marks a renaissance for minivans or just the recognition that this is a critical segment that isn’t going to be displaced, carmakers clearly agree on one thing: They need fresh products because every minivan currently on the market will be replaced during the 2011 model year, or in calendar year 2011.

    Indeed, Americans bought more than 460,000 minivans last year, and with appealing all-new choices, 2011 should attract even more minivan adherents.

    Here’s a list of new minivans for 2011.

  • Chrysler Town & Country

    Image: Town and Country

    When Chrysler Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca conceived of a “leather minivan” for the 1989 model year, the Town & Country was his notion that just because a box on wheels is practical doesn’t mean it can’t also be comfortable and luxurious. Now that model is more feature-packed than ever. Leather doesn’t set a van apart from the rest anymore, so the 2011 Town & Country has standard rear back-up camera, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert to minimize the chance for “I didn’t see it” accidents. The 2011 Town & Country should be well-received, as the 2010 model was already America’s top-selling minivan, accounting for a quarter of all minivan sales.

  • Dodge Grand Caravan

    Image: Dodge Caravan

    The Dodge Caravan was the minivan that launched the minivan segment (along with the Plymouth Voyager) in 1984. As vans in the class grew not-so-mini, so did the Caravan’s name as it became the Grand Caravan. The Grand Caravan is Dodge’s version of the same vehicle as the Town & Country, and it aims to be less expensive, with less standard equipment, while offering a hint of sportiness (presumably just in case you need to race to the local Target for another box of Pampers). Key is the new 283-hp Pentastar engine, giving Dodge (and Chrysler) van drivers Hemi-style bragging rights for the most power. Cue Tim Allen.

  • Ford C-Max

    Image: Ford C-Max

    Minivans have become maxi-vans, leaving a potential opportunity for smaller vans. Mazda has been in this space with its Mazda5 for several years, but a large brand like Ford could legitimize this so-far marginal van sub-segment. Ford terms the C-Max a 5+2 seater, recognizing that the third row is suitable for car-pooling teammates on their way to soccer practice, but is also probably not ideal for adults on long drives. Segment exclusive gadget: a sensor that lets a person carrying the van’s key to wave a leg under the back bumper to open the hatch, saving them from fumbling for keys while carrying groceries. Ford has announced plans for hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Max for 2012, making it potentially the most fuel-thrifty family hauler.

  • Honda Odyssey

    Image: Honda Odyssey

    Honda destroyed the myth that “minivan” equals “Chrysler” when its innovative Odyssey van set new standards for convenience features and garnered large sales. Until the Odyssey, competitors blamed the weak sales of their poor products on customers’ reflexive purchases of Chrysler vans, but Honda proved that consumers just want practical features. The new-for-2011 Odyssey proposes that consumers want a sleek, stylish minivan. It remains to be seen whether shoppers will be attracted by the styling, or whether they will continue to look past exterior appearances and concentrate on interior features. The rear seat video screen is so wide that its can show two different episodes of Dora the Explorer (or any other video content) simultaneously, side-by-side on the screen.

  • Kia KV7 concept

    Image: Kia KV7
    AFP - Getty Images

    Kia is the only minivan maker that doesn’t have a fresh family hauler headed to showrooms in coming months, if not there already. But lest anyone think that the aggressive Korean upstart is satisfied with being left behind in the face of new competition, Kia unveiled the KV7 concept at the Detroit auto show, previewing the styling for its next generation Sedona. Of course, the Sedona won’t actually have the KV7 concept’s outlandish gull wing doors, but auto show concepts are supposed to be outrageous. Just don’t expect your kids to be able to disembark from the van’s back seat like Marty McFly climbing from his time-traveling DeLorean.

  • Mazda5

    Image: Mazda5
    Mazda Motor Corportaion

    People movers are smaller in Japan, but Mazda thought its best solution to replacing its old MPV minivan was to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” by importing a smaller Japanese-market model with no direct competitor in the U.S. market. The six-seat Mazda5 retains the light weight and simplicity of manual sliding side doors that are so carefully designed that they close with the push of one finger. The 2012 iteration carries expressive new styling too. And this van’s claim to fame? Enthusiast drivers can buy one with a manual transmission if they want. Zoom zoom.

  • Nissan Quest

    Image: Nissan Quest

    Nissan has followed its own path in the minivan segment, admirably and unsuccessfully, as family van buyers didn’t buy into the Quest’s quirks. For 2011, Nissan has punted that strategy, introducing a thoroughly conventional and completely equipped contender that should easily gain the attention of Odyssey and Sienna intenders rather than scaring them off. Available dual sliding glass moonroofs allow more light and air into the van’s interior depths than is normally the case, while still permitting space for the overhead video screen.

  • Toyota Sienna

    Image: Toyota Sienna

    Toyota saw Honda’s success in challenging Chrysler directly with a full-sized contender and followed up with a bigger Sienna that was an instant hit. The 2011 Sienna continues that path with available eight-passenger seating and the only available four-cylinder engine among full-size minivans. Unfortunately, there is only a slight fuel economy benefit from the smaller engine, but it could be a step in the right direction. And the Sienna is the sole all-wheel-drive minivan on the market, making it a viable alternative to a crossover SUV for customers concerned about all-weather security.

  • Volkswagen Routan

    Image: Volkswagen Routan

    The truth is that Chrysler did not invent the minivan; Volkswagen did, way back in the 1950s. The old Beetle-based microbus was the first minivan, but the company let that legacy wither away over the decades. VW still makes vans in Germany, but they are too expensive to be competitive in the price-sensitive U.S. market. So instead the automaker sells its own version of Chrysler’s minivan, branding it the Routan. So far sales have been tepid, but a refreshed version of the van (not yet revealed) featuring the improvements seen in the new Chrysler vans should make the Routan more appealing to U.S. car buyers.

  • Ford Flex

    Image: Ford Flex

    Ford’s Flex gets an honorary mention here. It’s almost a van, and derived from the Fairlane concept, which like the Kia KV7 debuted wearing impractically designed rear doors. In the Fairlane’s case, they were rear-hinged “suicide” doors rather than Kia’s top-hinged gullwings. Regardless, they didn’t make it to production on the Flex. Ford considered proper sliding doors to make the Flex a minivan, but consumer clinics revealed such a strong customer aversion to minivans that Ford estimated it could sell triple the number of Flexes if the vehicle were equipped with SUV-style hinged rear doors, according to Ford styling chief J Mays. But in 2010 Chrysler sold three times as many Town & Country minivans and three times as many Grand Caravan minivans as Ford sold Flexes. Maybe if it had suburban-chic sliding doors Ford would sell more of them.

Photos: Production models

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  1. Volvo’s C30 electric crash test display is shown during the media preview of the 2011 North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Arena in Detroit. Volvo is hoping to burnish its reputation for car safety at the event, which features over 30 debuts of vehicles made by automakers from around the world. The show is open to the public from January 15 to 23. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A model poses in front of an Audi A7 during the media previewfor the show. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The 2011 Jeep Compass is unveiled. Chrysler Jeep is celebrating its 70th year in 2011. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Chevrolet Corvette, right, and a 2011 Corvette ZR1 sit on display. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The 2011 Ford Explorer, winner of the 2011 North American Truck of the Year award, on display at the 2011 North American International Auto Show. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Volvo’s Electric C30 car is powered by a lithium-ion battery and can be charged from a household power socket. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Venturi’s high-voltage buggy concept includes a 300-horsepower engine. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The new Dodge Ram 3500 truck is equipped with a powerful 350-horsepower engine. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The 2011 Camaro RS convertible. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A model poses next to a Dodge Charger Hemi. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The new Chevrolet Sonic small car will go into production later this year for the 2012 model year. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Porsche returns to the 2011 North American International Auto Show with the Cayman R sports car. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The new Bentley Continental GT will launch from standstill to 60mph in just 4.6 seconds and has a top speed of 197 mph. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Toyota Executive Bob Carter introduces the Prius V midsize hybrid-electric vehicle, left, and the Prius C concept, right. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ford's Mark Fields introduces the Ford C-MAX electric vehicle. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of Volkswagen Management Group, introduces the new Volkswagen Passat. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The Porsche 918 RSR sports car Has a V8 engine that delivers 563 horsepower and can jump to 767 horsepower with the push of a button. (Friso Gentsch / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Audi introduces the new A6 Hybrid. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A model poses next to the Ferrari 458 Italia. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The BMW 650i convertible is unveiled. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG E-Cell has four electric motors (one for each wheel) and can accelerate to 60 mph in 4 seconds. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Ford’s President and CEO Alan Mulally presents the Ford Focus ST. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Ford’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford introduces Ford’s electric lineup: (Left to right) the C-MAX electric car, the Transit Connect electric truck, the Focus electric car and the C-MAX hybrid. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The interior of the Buick Verano, GM’s first upscale compact car for a luxury brand, is shown. The Verano is GM’s only new model to debut at the event. (Geoff Robins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The Chrysler 300, once a hot-selling sedan, is redesigned with a sleeker look. (Tony Ding / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Tom Stephens, vice chairman of General Motors, holds up the 2011 North American International Auto Show Car of the Year trophy, which this year was awarded to the Chevrolet Volt. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Two of the new Mercedes Benz C Class vehicles are shown at a Mercedes Benz event the night before the official start of the media preview event. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Michael Price cleans a Cadillac CTS-V coupe race car on the show floor. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (29) On the catwalk in Detroit - Production models
  2. Image: GMC Sierra All Terrain HD Concept
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    Slideshow (12) On the catwalk in Detroit - Concept cars


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