Toyota Motor Corp. became the world's top auto seller in the first three months of the year, passing rival General Motors Corp. for the first time, the Japanese automaker said Tuesday.
Toyota sold 2.348 million vehicles worldwide in the January-March quarter, company official Satoshi Yamaguchi said, surpassing the 2.260 million vehicles that GM said it sold during the same period.
The results mark the first time Toyota has beat GM in global sales on a quarterly basis, he said.
While the figures represent only quarterly sales results, they foreshadow a tough challenge for GM as it fights to hold onto it title as world's top automaker -- a claim usually staked on annual production figures.
In 2006, Toyota's global production surged 10 percent to 9.018 million vehicles, while GM and its group automakers produced 9.180 million vehicles worldwide -- a gap of about 162,000. In the first quarter, Toyota made 2.367 million vehicles worldwide, while GM had expected to produce 2.335 million.
It's no time to start popping the champagne, however, because overtaking GM is not Toyota's first priority, said Paul Nolasco, a spokesman for the Japanese company.
"Our goal has never been to sell the most cars in the world," Nolasco said. "We simply want to be the best in quality. After that, sales will take care of themselves."
Indeed, it is Toyota's sterling reputation for quality and fuel efficiency that has lifted its global sales, including the popular Camry, Corolla and Prius gas-and-electric hybrid.
GM, meanwhile, cut production last year as high fuel prices drove people away from its trucks and sport utility vehicles. To shore up earnings, it has cut jobs and closed plants.
Toyota has been gaining steadily on GM in recent years, and analysts have been saying it is only a matter of time before it eclipses its Detroit-based rival, which has seen its market share shrink in the United States even as it leads sales in China.
In the vital American market, Toyota's sales rose 12.9 percent last year, catapulting it past DaimlerChrysler AG as the No. 3 seller of autos in the U.S. Toyota's share of the U.S. market climbed to 16 percent in March, behind GM's 22 percent and Ford Motor Co.'s 17 percent.
A copy of Toyota's "global master plan" leaked to the news media late last year calls for grabbing 15 percent of the world car market by 2010 in the company's quest to unseat GM.
GM hasn't released a forecast for this year, but Toyota is shooting for global output of 9.42 million vehicles and sales of 9.34 million units.
While Toyota appears on course to supplant General Motors this year, GM's moves to boost overseas production could keep it in the running. The company's sales in China jumped 32 percent last year to 876,747 units, and it is also building a new factory in India, another market with tremendous potential.
GM launched a major restructuring in November 2005 that called for closing 12 plants by 2008, slashing its work force, reducing capacity and cutting costs.
But as Toyota rolls on, its executives are growing concerned about a possible political backlash in the U.S., even though American consumers continue to flock to Toyota dealerships. U.S. lawmakers from manufacturing states charge that the Japanese government has kept the yen artificially low, giving Japanese automakers an advantage.
"We are certainly concerned," Toyota Senior Adviser Hiroshi Okuda said earlier this year, adding that Toyota needed to "significantly" increase the number of foreigners on its board.
At that time, there were no foreigners in top positions at Toyota. But earlier this month, Toyota promoted American James Press, president of the automaker's North American division, to the inner circle.
Toyota's shares closed down 0.54 percent to 7,370 yen (US$62.46) on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Tuesday.