How a Chinese minivan put GM in backseat
New ranking of global sales shifts some GM sales to Chinese partner, dropping it just behind Toyota in total vehicle sales for 2006.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- General Motors may have lost its long-held title of world's largest automaker to Toyota Motor earlier than previously reported.
Toyota (Charts) edged ahead of GM (Charts, Fortune 500) in total sales in 2006, according to a recent ranking by a leading industry journal, which drops some of the Chinese sales previously credited to GM.
Detroit-based weekly Automotive News, which releases a sales total in late June of every year, showed GM with 8,679,860 vehicles sold in 2006, up 3.6 percent from 2005, but 128,000 behind the Toyota's sales estimate of 8,808,000. Toyota's global sales gained 8.5 percent from a year earlier in the publication's latest rankings.
"A little-known Chinese microvan played a role in Toyota's victory," said the magazine in a report on its Web site.
In its final tally for 2006, GM included the seven-seat microvan sold under the Wuling brand in China, which saw sales of 420,140 vehicles. But GM owns less than 50 percent of the three-way joint venture with China's Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. and Liuzhou Wuling Automobile, so Automotive News credits those sales to Shanghai Automotive, which it said owns a 51 percent stake in the joint venture. That leaves GM's global sales just a hair behind Toyota.
A GM spokesman said the company had no comment on the Automotive News ranking, other than to confirm the company counted the sales that were excluded by the publication. A Toyota spokesman was not available for comment early Tuesday.
GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner has said that hanging onto the No. 1 sales ranking isn't a priority, but that it's also a distinction GM won't give up without a fight.
No matter which company held the title for No. 1 automaker in 2006, it's clear that Toyota will surpass GM this year, due to stronger global sales growth than the U.S. automaker, which had held the top spot since 1931.
Toyota already has taken the lead in the global sales in the first quarter of this year.
Toyota had sales of 2.35 million cars and light trucks in the first three months of the year, compared to 2.25 million at GM.
The sales forecasts from the two companies suggest that Toyota will not give up that lead the rest of the year. And industry analysts say that GM is not likely to overtake the faster sales growth at Toyota in future years without the acquisition of another major automaker by the troubled U.S. automaker.
Still, GM is forecasting improved company sales in 2007, which will build on record sales it saw in 2006. Growth in Chinese sales is helping to overcome declining U.S. sales. GM has cut back on less profitable fleet sales to business customers, such as rental car companies, in its home market as it tries to end two years of losses on its North American automotive operations.
At the time the first-quarter sales showed Toyota moving into the lead, GM spokesman John McDonald said the ranking was less important than GM being a successful and profitable automaker.
"There's a focus on competition with all the global manufacturers, not just Toyota," he said at that time. "There's room for more than one successful automaker in the world. We're not going to let that rivalry distract us from what we need to do globally."
Strong sales growth allowed Toyota to also pass DaimlerChrysler (Charts) in U.S. sales for the first time in 2006. The German-American automaker is in the process of selling its North American Chrysler Group unit, a deal announced earlier this year. But even the combined Chrysler Group and Mercedes Benz sales lost their long-held No. 3 in U.S. sales in 2006.
And Toyota could pass Ford Motor (Charts, Fortune 500) for the No. 2 position in U.S. sales this year, as Ford's U.S. sales have fallen 13.4 percent through the first four months of 2007, as it to cut fleet sales in an effort to reverse losses.