Toyota Nips At General Motors' Heels, Sees Big '08

Until this year, General Motors has been the world's biggest automaker in sales volume. That may have changed. Toyota says it is on track to sell more vehicles worldwide next year than General Motors--the first time GM will have been bested globally in more than 75 years.

General Motors has placed this year's global sales estimate at 9.3 million vehicles, compared with Toyota's estimate of 9.36 million. Toyota predicts its worldwide sales will be 9.85 million vehicles in 2008. GM hasn't said what it expects to sell next year.

In the United States, Toyota sold 197,189 cars and trucks last month, and 2.39 million vehicles in the first 11 months. Worldwide, Toyota said it produced about 7.9 million vehicles in that period. GM sold 261,273 vehicles in November in the U.S., and over 3.54 million vehicles through November--a 6.1% drop.

Toyota's U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz said earlier this month that the company is on track to sell 2.6 million vehicles this year in the U.S.--including a quarter of a million hybrid vehicles--a 3% to 4% gain for 2007. Lentz said he expects another 3% increase in sales in 2008, as the company rolls out updated versions of many of its cars and trucks.

On Wednesday, the company's global president said U.S. sales will have a more conservative 1% improvement to 2.64 million vehicles in 2008.

Toyota's--and everyone else's--strength in wooing consumers who are skittish about fuel prices and lower home values is in small cars and other fuel sippers. Toyota sold 98,749 passenger cars last month in the U.S.--a 6.1% improvement over last year. But Toyota's light truck sales slipped 4.4%, to 73,592.

General Motors also reported increased deliveries of cars like the new Chevrolet Malibu, 2008 Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Aveo, Cobalt, Pontiac G5 and G6. The company reported a 15% improvement in Chevrolet car sales last month.

Next year, Toyota will bow over a dozen newly revised vehicles, including updated versions of platform siblings Matrix and Corolla; Lexus LX 570; and a new high-performance version of the Lexus IS that introduces the "F" sub-brand intended to compete with the likes of BMW M, Mercedes AMG and Cadillac V-Series.

Katsuaki Watanabe, the president of Toyota, said hybrid technologies will play a central role in sales growth, and that the company--which has sold 1.25 million hybrid vehicles worldwide--is hoping to sell 1 million such vehicles annually as early as possible in 2010, and a hybrid version of all model series by 2020.

Todd Turner, president of Car Concepts, an L.A.-based consultancy, says Toyota is indeed on track to outsell GM worldwide this year. And in the U.S., "the issue is when Toyota division will outsell Chevrolet." He says Chevrolet has sold 2.66 million vehicles so far this year in the U.S., and Toyota division has sold 1.9 million. "It's mass market brand versus mass market brand. And that's the story that will likely happen next year."

General Motors' product czar, Vice Chairman Robert Lutz, has argued, however, that vehicles like the new Malibu are injecting new strength into GM's largest division. And in GM's blog, FastLane, he notes that GM took four of the six finalist spots for North American Car and Truck of the Year. He also said this fall that GM will beat Toyota to market with lithium ion batteries.

Turner says GM--despite the new vehicles--is still behind Toyota in revisions, refreshenings and launches. "They should have as much complication in their launch strategy as Toyota, which is trying to get the word out about how many cars? The biggest problem with Toyota in terms of launch strategy is how to share the budget."

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