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Washington — Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday it remained the world’s largest automaker in 2014 for the third straight year, selling an all-time record 10.23 million vehicles worldwide compared to German automaker Volkswagen AG’s 10.14 million vehicles.

It was the first time the Japanese automaker topped 10 million vehicles after selling 9.98 million in 2013. But Toyota’s lead may not last in 2015 as it offered a gloomier forecast for 2015 sales. Some analysts think VW will outsell Toyota in 2015 — a goal the German automaker has set for itself.

General Motors Co.’ 2014 sales rose 2.1 percent to a record 9.92 million with strong sales in North America and China -- falling firmly into third place. In 2013, VW outsold GM — but only if heavy vehicles were included. In 2014, VW still had a lead over GM even without counting heavy vehicles. GM hasn’t offered an outlook for overall 2015 sales, but said it expects to sell more vehicles this year.

GM CEO Mary Barra has repeatedly said she wants to be most valuable automaker in the world, but executives have shifted focus from being the biggest — to making profits and building the highest quality vehicles. GM has set aggressive sales goals, including nearly doubling Cadillac sales to 500,000 by 2020.

Toyota was also the top-selling automaker from 2008-10, but GM regained the title in 2011 after Toyota production sank because of natural disasters in Asia. GM was the world's largest automaker from 1931 through 2007.

But Toyota is far stronger than VW in the United States — the most profitable market worldwide. Toyota sales were up 6.2 percent in 2014 in the United States to 2.37 million. GM was solidly ahead of Toyota with 2.94 million vehicles sold in the United States in 2014. Ford Motor Co. narrowly outsold Toyota in the United States with 2.39 million vehicles in 2014.

Toyota said its sales were up 3 percent worldwide, including a 5 percent increase in sales in its Daihatsu unit and 4 percent in Hino sales. Its Toyota brand unit, including Lexus and other vehicles, was up just 2 percent to 9.15 million. Toyota said it expected worldwide sales in 2015 to slip 1 percent to 10.15 million as it said Daihtasu will fall 9 percent. It said its Toyota brand sales will fall 0.4 percent to 9.18 million. Toyota didn’t meet its forecast announced in January 2014 of 10.32 million vehicles.

David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, said the sales crown isn’t that important. “Being number one in sales is not as important of being highly profitable,” Cole said. Once you are number one “you become more of a target,” Cole said. He called the top seller “no big deal.”

VW is pushing for aggressive growth around the world and has set a public goal of becoming the world’s largest automaker. With VW showing strength in China — and not as tied to Japanese sales — it may be enough to surpass Toyota. Toyota predicts sales in Japan will fall 9 percent this year.

Earlier this month, VW said its sales were up 4.2 percent worldwide, also topping 10 million for the first time, even as sales declined 2 percent in the United States. VW sales have doubled in 10 years as it sold more than 4 million vehicles for the first time in Asia in a year, up 11.3 percent. Most of those were in China, where sales were nearly 3.7 million, up 12.4 percent. VW’s sales include some heavy trucks, but even excluding those they remain slightly ahead of GM.

VW said it was on track to meet its 2018 goals, including becoming the world's largest automaker and has aggressive plans to grow sales in the United States and elsewhere. VW chairman Martin Winterkorn said last week at the North American International Auto Show that VW would go into “attack mode” as it brings out a flurry of new SUVs and larger models for the U.S. market.

Toyota executives have repeatedly downplayed the title of world’s largest automaker, saying they would prefer to focus on serving customers.

But all three of the largest automakers reported profits in the first three quarters of 2014.

VW reported profits of about $12.6 billion in the first nine months of the year, while Toyota reported quarterly profits of $3.2 billion in November and said it was on target to make $17.5 billion for the year ending in March 2015. GM has reported about $1.7 billion in profits this year -- after the company booked $2.7 billion for recall related charges. It has also set aside $400 million to $600 million to pay for compensation for people killed and injured as part of its 2.6 million older cars recalled.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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