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GM pulls just ahead of Toyota in global sales

DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors on Wednesday reported worldwide sales of 9.37 million vehicles in 2007, coming in just ahead of Japanese rival Toyota in a closely watched race for the top spot in global sales.

General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner is shown with the Buick Enclave at the GM exhibit at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 15, 2008. REUTERS/John F. Martin-General Motors/Handout (UNITED STATES). EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

GM, which was expected to lose its title of the world’s largest automaker for the first time in 76 years, sold 9,369,524 vehicles in 2007. Toyota sold about 9,366,000 units, a source told Reuters on Wednesday.

The Japanese automaker earlier this month publicly announced global sales of 9.37 million for 2007, saying it would disclose more precise figures in late January.

GM said its total global sales rose 3 percent from a year earlier, driven by strong growth in regions outside North America.

Still, the two automakers are neck-and-neck, with only about 3,500 vehicles separating them at a time when Toyota has been growing in the United States -- the world’s single largest market for vehicle sales -- while GM’s domestic market share has been slipping.

Since 1998, GM’s global sales have grown at an average annual rate of about 1.5 percent, while Toyota’s growth rate has been five times that.

The two automakers have been perceived to be in a heated race this year after Toyota overtook GM in the first quarter and then fell behind by just a few thousand units later in the year.

“We are very competitive here at GM and obviously we’d like to win,” GM’s chief sales analyst, Mike DiGiovanni, said on a call on Wednesday.

“But I would say that what we are really focused on running our business for the long term profitably and growing. I think we are laying the foundation to grow where the growth is and laying the foundation to turn around in the U.S.,” he said.

“We are in this for the long run and we want to win.”

After losing more than $12 billion (6 billion pounds) in 2005 and 2006, GM is in the middle of a restructuring of its North American operations that includes slashing more than 34,000 jobs and closing 12 plants.

GM’s annual sales in North America, its largest region by volume, fell 6.1 percent, hurt by high gasoline prices, a weak housing market, a subprime meltdown and a planned reduction in daily rental sales.

The automaker, which has been struggling in the United States -- its largest and historically most profitable market -- has been growing overseas as it loses market share to Japanese competitors at home.

OVERSEAS GROWTH

Outside the United States, sales totaled 5.5 million vehicles, accounting for 59 percent of total sales.

Sales in the Asia Pacific region rose 15.1 percent led by China, while sales in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East rose 19.4 percent, driven by Brazil. Sales in Europe rose 8.9 percent.

DiGiovanni said the automaker faced capacity constraints in China and Latin America and “could have sold more” if it could have increased production.

He said GM is “looking at some alternatives” that could help increase capacity in those regions.

DiGiovanni also said he expected global industry vehicle sales to grow 3.5 percent to 73 million units in 2008.

GM shares were up 56 cents, or 2.3 percent, at $24.21 in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

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