DETROIT (AP) – General Motors, a symbol of American industrial might and the world's top seller of motor vehicles since Herbert Hoover was president, has finally been caught by a foreign rival.
GM conceded Wednesday that Toyota Motor Corp. pulled even last year, each of them selling about 9.37 million vehicles, in another sign that the balance of corporate power is shifting from West to East.
It's the first time GM has been anything other than the exclusive global sales leader since 1931.
The figure of 9,369,524 vehicles sold around the world was a 3 percent increase from 2006 for GM. But Toyota's strong sales growth in the United States in recent years — and declining sales for GM in its own backyard — finally closed the gap.
Earlier this month, Toyota reported global sales of about 9.37 million vehicles for 2007. The Japanese automaker said Wednesday it would not release more precise figures, so who's No. 1 remains unclear.
"The race is too close to call," said Mike DiGiovanni, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis. "I don't think anybody knows at this point."
Toyota's share of the U.S. market has more than doubled since 1990, when it sold about 1 million vehicles for a 7.5 percent share of the domestic market, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank.
In that time Toyota sales have grown briskly as drivers opted for its smaller, fuel-efficient cars and their reputation for reliability. In 2007, Toyota sold 2.6 million vehicles in the United States, a 16 percent share of the market.
GM, third on the Fortune 500 list of U.S. corporations, remains the domestic auto sales leader. But its market share has dropped dramatically from about 35 percent in 1990 to about 24 percent in 2007. GM sold 3.8 million vehicles in the United States last year.
Aaron Bragman, an analyst with the consulting firm Global Insight, said GM and Toyota have expanded almost evenly in most emerging global markets, but GM has been hurt by sales declines in North America.
"A lot of that volume reduction has come here," Bragman said. "They did very well in every other market except North America."
He said much of GM's U.S. sales decline comes as the company has intentionally cut incentives and reduced low-profit sales to rental car companies. GM's U.S. sales last year were down 6 percent from 2006, due largely to a reduction in fleet sales — those to large, bulk buyers.
"If they had kept that fleet volume up, it wouldn't even be a competition," Bragman said.
Overall, GM's worldwide sales in 2007 were the second-best in its 100-year history. It set a sales record in China by selling more than a million vehicles, set a record in Brazil with nearly 500,000 and doubled sales in Russia.
"I think we've done a heck of a job in positioning ourselves very well in where the growth in the world is in terms of the emerging markets, particularly Latin America, Asia Pacific, China, Russia, India," DiGiovanni said.
GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner has pledged to defend the global sales title, but said the company would not abandon its U.S. strategy of cutting back on low-profit sales.
"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," Wagoner said earlier this month.
Burgeoning markets in places like China, Russia and South America, and other regions with growing middle classes, will probably decide the sales title in coming years.
While the U.S. economy sputters, China and India continue to boom. China's economy is growing at about 11 percent a year, and India's at about 9 percent, two of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.
In the U.S., the gross domestic product grew by only 2.2 percent last year. Auto analysts foresee slower growth in the mature markets of North America and Europe, and the auto market in Japan is shrinking.
Toyota is setting up more overseas plants and aims to sell 9.85 million vehicles this year, or 5 percent more than in 2007, under an ambitious plan announced last month. Toyota executives also project better U.S. sales this year.
GM would not give a global sales forecast for this year.
Toyota executives have consistently brushed off questions about becoming No. 1. Shoichiro Toyoda, a member of Toyota's founding family and former president of the company, has said gaining the top spot in the auto industry could be fleeting.
"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. "We need to just keep working harder."
Some company officials acknowledge they are even nervous about wresting the title because of fears about a U.S. political backlash reminiscent of the "Japan-bashing" in the 1980s and '90s, when Japan was accused of taking jobs from American workers.
Earlier this month, Toyota deposed Ford Motor Co. as the No. 2 auto-seller in the U.S. in 2007.
GM shares rose $2.05, or 8.67 percent, to $25.70 on the New York Stock Exchange, while Toyota's U.S. shares rose $2.34, or 2.41 percent, to $99.25.
On the Net:
General Motors Corp.: http://www.gm.com
Toyota Motor Corp. http://www.toyota.com