GM back on top in global sales race

@CNNMoney January 19, 2012: 2:27 PM ET

DETROIT (CNNMoney) -- General Motors is once again No. 1 in global auto sales, after three years out of the top spot.

It's a comeback that became official Thursday when it reported final 2011 sales figures of 9 million vehicles, its best sales total since 2007.

Recapturing the top spot seemed unthinkable in 2008. At the time, the company was in a tailspin. Its very future was uncertain, and a bankruptcy filing and federal bailout loomed.

GM's feat is also a contrast to other U.S. industries that lost market share to overseas competitors, never to see it return.

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GM (GM, Fortune 500) never lost the lead in U.S. sales, but its market share here slid nearly continuously for decades, from 44% in 1980 to only 19% in 2010. But that trend has been reversing for the last two years, helping GM quickly return to profitability in the wake of its bankruptcy.

But its home market is only part of the sales story.

It is also the largest automaker in China, where it sold about 2.5 million vehicles. It increased both sales and share in the country that's the world's biggest market for auto sales.

"They continue to be awfully strong in the U.S. and China. If you can conquer those two markets, you've got two-thirds of the world," said Rebecca Lindland, director of research for IHS Automotive.

Toyota Motor (TM) held the global sales title between 2008 and 2010. But disruptions to its operations from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and flooding in Thailand later in the year, cut into its sales last year.

While Toyota has yet to report final 2011 figures, it likely finished third behind GM and German automaker Volkswagen, which sold 8.2 million vehicles last year, a record for the company.

Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500), which is No. 2 in U.S. sales, trails GM, VW and Toyota in global sales due to a weaker position in China. It also has yet to report total 2011 numbers, with global sales of 4.3 million through the first nine months of the year.

GM CEO Dan Akerson downplayed the significance of the title when speaking with reporters at the Detroit auto show last week.

"I like profitability more than I do market share," he said. "We're a mass producer, and scale matters to us, therefore we're pleased with that accomplishment."

Market share vs. profitability: In the past, GM had held onto market share and its No. 1 rank by cutting prices on cars to the point where they were unprofitable. Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of GM, said worrying about its market share rank did the company more harm than good. (Fiat 500 sales goal 'incredibly naive')

"There is absolutely nothing to be gained by being the world's biggest," he said. "I tried to tell them to say, no, it's not our objective to be No. 1. But they just couldn't do it."

But Lindland said GM can be pleased that it got back on top without that kind of deep discounting and grab for market share.

How long GM will be able to hold onto its lead is uncertain. Toyota is expected to post a sharp rebound this year, and Volkswagen has set an aggressive sales target of selling 10 million vehicles worldwide by 2018.

"I don't think we've set the goal to be the largest manufacturer in the world. I think the lead is going to trade off," said Akerson. "I wouldn't count Toyota or any of our competitors out. But we're having a good run now. I'm very pleased by our product." To top of page

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