General Motors Co. sold more cars and trucks in China last year than it did in the U.S., for the first time in the company's 102-year history.
Despite GM's growth in China, Toyota Motor Corp. held onto the title of world's largest automaker. The Japanese company reported 8.42 million sales worldwide last year. That's 30,000 more than GM's 8.39 million.
GM said Monday that it sold 2.35 million vehicles in fast-growing China, about 136,000 more than it sold in the U.S., with China sales surging 29 percent as an expanding middle class gained wealth. Sales in the U.S., including heavy-duty vehicles, rose 6.3 percent as GM continued to rebound from its 2009 stay in bankruptcy protection.
GM expects its sales growth to continue, and industry analysts say it may once again dethrone Toyota as the global sales leader this year. GM will announce Monday that it's adding a third shift to a pickup truck assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, to meet an expected increase in demand as the U.S. economic recovery continues.
Pickup truck sales in the U.S. were up 16 percent last year to 1.6 million vehicles, and they're still among the top-selling vehicles in the country. GM says small businesses are beginning to buy pickups again after staying out of the market for nearly two years.
The company will bring back 650 laid-off workers to staff the Flint plant, which has been operating on two shifts per day, according to a person briefed on a scheduled announcement. The last time the plant worked around the clock was in the second quarter of 2008.
Pickup truck sales rose 16 percent in the U.S. last year, and GM expects sales to continue to go up.
General Motors achieved double-digit jumps in five of its top 10 markets, including the 29 percent increase in China. Toyota, in contrast, sold just 846,000 vehicles in China.
GM also marked a 12.4 percent sales rise in Russia and a 10.4 percent rise in Brazil.
GM and Toyota tied for the global sales lead in 2007, ending GM's 76-year string of global dominance. Toyota took the title in 2008 and has held it ever since, but last year's string of embarrassing safety recalls and a resurgent GM combined to make the race close again.
Toyota sold 8.42 million vehicles globally in 2010, narrowly remaining the world's top automaker ahead of General Motors, which sold 8.39 million cars and trucks. GM's figure was a dramatic 12 percent increase from 2009, a year in which it closed factories and was forced to take aid from the U.S. government to survive.
The race between the two giants appears to be getting close, with the chance the tables could be turned, seeing GM once again rising to the top.
"General Motors is going strong, and it's a sure sign of its re-emergence," said Yasuaki Iwamoto, auto analyst with Okasan Securities Co. in Tokyo.
GM spokesman Tom Henderson said the company isn't focusing on the race with Toyota.
"A financially healthy and sustainable business that benefits our customers, stakeholders and employees takes precedence over any ranking. Our motivation is to be the best global company and let the numbers speak for themselves," he said.