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Toyota Cedes Global Sales Lead to Volkswagen in Q1

Lost production will test Toyota’s ability to extend to five years its streak as the world’s top-selling automaker.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s global sales declined in the first quarter and fell behind Volkswagen AG’s, as a series of production disruptions threaten the Japanese automaker’s four-year reign atop auto industry sales charts.

Worldwide deliveries dropped 2.3% to 2.46 million vehicles in the January-to-March period, Toyota (IW 1000/8) spokeswoman Kayo Doi said by phone Tuesday. While contending with its worst crisis in company history, Volkswagen deliveries rose 0.8% to 2.5 million.

Already handicapped by a one-week shutdown at domestic assembly plants in February, Toyota anticipates losing output of another 80,000 vehicles due to Japan’s most devastating earthquakes since March 2011. The lost production will test Toyota’s ability to extend to five years its streak as the world’s top-selling automaker. Growth in China and Europe have buoyed sales for Volkswagen (IW 1000/7), which has still had to slash its dividend and boost provisions for its emissions-cheating scandal.

“All effort is being made now to grasp the current situation and build the recovery plan,” Hiroji Onishi, a Toyota senior managing officer, said of the latest shutdowns during a briefing with reporters Sunday in Beijing, ahead of China’s biggest auto show. “This has impacted multiple parts, models and plants.”

Toyota wasn’t alone in posting a sales decline during the quarter. General Motors Co. said deliveries dropped 2.5% to 2.36 million, citing a slump in South American markets and China’s slowing commercial vehicle market.

Volkswagen boosted deliveries by 6.4% in China and 3.5% in Western Europe during the first three months of the year, pacing its second quarterly win over Toyota in the past year. The 16.2 billion euros (US$18.2 billion) the company has set aside to cover emissions-cheating scandal costs has rendered passing Toyota a hollow victory.

More attention has turned to carmakers’ compliance with fuel economy and emissions standards rather than sales achievements, in the wake of Volkswagen’s admission in September that it equipped diesel engines with software that circumvented U.S. law.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. said last week it manipulated testing figures and overstated fuel economy of Japan minicars. Daimler AG investigated the emissions certification process of its cars following a request by the U.S. Department of Justice, while fraud investigators raided French manufacturer PSA Group.

Toyota on Monday began to restart assembly lines halted after earthquakes on Kyushu island in southern Japan, with more output resuming in phases through Thursday, according to an April 20 statement.

The production halts in February were linked to an explosion and fire at a plant run by affiliate Aichi Steel Corp., which disrupted engine, transmission and chassis component supply. Toyota’s production that month plunged 17% to 298,839 vehicles.

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