January 22, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Toyota overtakes GM in global sales

Detroit carmaker loses No. 1 spot after 77 years; Treasury gives it $5.4B more in rescue loans.

Toyota Motor Corp. outsold General Motors Corp. in 2008 to become the world's biggest automaker, capturing a coveted title that has lost some of its significance in the midst of a historic downturn.

GM is fighting for its survival after years of being No. 1 in sales failed to translate into profits, and Toyota signaled recently that it would announce another grim milestone -- the company's first full-year operating loss in more than 50 years.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury, which is lending GM money to help keep it afloat, provided the U.S. automaker with $5.4 billion, the second installment of a loan package approved late last year.

Both GM and Toyota sustained sales declines in 2008, but Toyota finished ahead after selling 8.97 million cars and trucks, about 620,000 more than GM.

Their sales may fall again this year. With most major automakers now losing money because of plunging demand in major markets, GM, Toyota and most of their rivals are slashing production.

GM's fall to second place, announced Wednesday, has been painful for the automaker, which had been the world's biggest for 77 years.

"I do care," GM President Frederick "Fritz" Henderson told reporters on Tuesday evening. "But to me, the most important thing is to make General Motors successful."

In terms of key measures such as market capitalization and cash flow that gauge a company's health and profitability, "they passed us long ago," he said.

GM sales executives downplayed the importance during a sales call Wednesday.

"I don't think being No. 1 in sales means much to the average consumer," said Mike DiGiovanni, GM's executive director of industry analysis. "I think what matters most to the consumer is strong brands and strong products."

GM is now studying ways to sell or shrink four of its eight brands as part of a recovery plan that it submitted to the government last year when it requested emergency loans.

The automaker has now received $9.4 billion out of $13.4 billion in loans promised by the government, and executives are drafting a plan to demonstrate the company's viability that is due on Feb. 17.

"That's all we're pretty much thinking about -- getting past this economic crisis, and becoming a stronger company," DiGiovanni said. "That consumes 100 percent of our time."

Toyota officials also downplayed the Japanese company's rise to No. 1.

"These numbers don't mean anything," said Irv Miller, group vice president at Toyota Motor Sales Inc. in Torrance, Calif. "These sales, they don't equate to the bottom line very much. A return to profit would be much more important today for us than these sales numbers."

Toyota warned investors last month that it expected to report a $1.7 billion operating loss for the fiscal year ending on March 31.

Japan's leading automakers have been buffeted by the slump in global demand, but they are in far stronger financial shape than Detroit's automakers, Kurt Sanger, a Tokyo-based analyst for investment firm Deutsche Bank, said Wednesday.

You can reach Christine Tierney at ctierney@detnews.com">ctierney@detnews.com.