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Dead heat in race to be world's biggest carmaker

General Motors and Toyota were in a virtual dead heat as the world's biggest carmaker last year.
/ Source: Financial Times

General Motors and Toyota were in a virtual dead heat as the world's biggest carmaker last year.

GM said on Wednesday that it sold 9.369,524 cars and trucks in 2007. Toyota announced earlier this month that its sales totaled 9.37m. A spokesman for the Japanese carmaker said on Wednesday that it would not be able to supply a precise number until later this month.

GM has worn the crown for the past 77 years, and last year's sales were the second highest in its 100-year history, eclipsed only in 1978.

Toyota's challenge for the top spot is due mainly to the contrasting fortunes of the two companies in north America. Toyota sold 2.62m vehicles in the US in 2007, just 50 years after it first ventured across the Pacific.

The Japanese carmaker toppled GM from the top spot in the first three months of last year, but GM has been helped subsequently by a surge in sales in fast-growing emerging markets, notably China, Russia and Brazil.

GM's US sales have tumbled from a peak of 7.1m in 1978 to 3.8m last year, largely due to loss of market share in passenger cars as it concentrated on more profitable sport-utility vehicles and pick-up trucks. Toyota also supplanted Ford Motor last year in the number-two spot in the US.

However, Toyota has been rattled in the past year by problems stemming from its rapid growth, including soaring vehicle recalls. Its president Katsuaki Watanabe said in Detroit earlier this month that "we must always be engaged in determined efforts to improve quality".

Meanwhile, GM has gained a fresh lease on life after a brush with bankruptcy three years ago, producing a string of new models that have won acclaim and making an aggressive push into emerging economies.

Toyota is behind GM in the big emerging markets now driving the industry's growth. Brazil emerged last year as GM's third-biggest market, after the US and China.

GM has also poured resources into a drive to wrest Toyota's halo as a pioneer in environmentally friendly technology.

Each company has grown less dependent on its sputtering home market. Japan made up 24 per cent of Toyota's sales last year. GM sold more than half its vehicles outside north America.

Toyota can take comfort that its stock-market value is more than ten times that of GM.