GM Retakes Top Spot from Quake-Crippled Toyota

Regaining the top spot will be a tough slog for Toyota, analysts warned.

The massive quake which knocked Toyota out of the top spot in the first quarter will likely help General Motors regain the global sales crown this year and could even see Toyota overtaken by Volkswagen.

"It is almost certain that Toyota will lose its number one position this year," said Bill Visnic, an analyst with the automotive website Edmunds.com.

"Its production won't be fully back before very late in the year. It is hard to predict another outcome."

Toyota sold 1.79 million vehicles worldwide in the first three months of the year, down 12 percent from the first quarter of 2010.

GM sold 2.22 million vehicles to regain the crown -- at least for the quarter -- lost to Toyota in 2008 after 77 years.

Volkswagen -- which is actively seeking the top spot in global sales -- sold two million vehicles in the same period.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the resulting tsunami hammered production, shattered supply chains and crippled electricity-generating facilities, including a nuclear power plant at the center of an ongoing atomic emergency.

A parts shortage forced Toyota to slash production not just domestically but also in the United States, European Union, China and Australia in the wake of the March 11 disaster.

Toyota, which produces more than half of its vehicles and many critical parts in Japan, said Wednesday that it hopes to get its global production up to 70 percent of normal levels by June but will not resume full production until November or December.

Analysts say Toyota is particularly exposed in terms of its thin operating margins in comparison with its peers, partly due to quality-related expenditures as it looks to recover from the impact of millions of safety recalls.

Previously lauded for its safety, Toyota became mired in crisis when it recalled nearly nine million autos between late 2009 and February last year due to brake and accelerator defects alleged to have caused dozens of deaths.

The crisis dealt a huge blow to the firm's reputation, prompting predictions it would lose market share as it tightened its recall policy to encompass around 16 million vehicles between late 2009 and January this year.

"The earthquake certainly played a role in Toyota's numbers falling down, but their sales wouldn't have been impressive even without it," said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with the automotive site TrueCars.com.

"The recall problem is still affecting their sales particularly in the North American market."

Regaining the top spot will be a tough slog for Toyota, analysts warned.

"It's hard to regain a buyer once you've lost them," Visnic told AFP.

"That's why the industry tries very hard to retain their customers. If they're not able to deliver a (Toyota) Corolla and the customer buys a Ford Focus that could have ramifications for years."

The Detroit Three carmakers will likely benefit the most from Toyota's decline in the United States, but European rivals will gain from supply shortages at Toyota's luxury Lexus brand.

Toprak expects GM to win the top spot for the year, as it would be "tough" but "mathematically possible" for Volkswagen to overtake the US automaker.

"They've been very vocal about their desire to be a high volume automaker in every market, including in the U.S." where they have a marginal market share of 2.5 percent, Toprak said.

"GM on the other hand has been focusing on profitability instead of market share," which means "VW might have an opportunity to be more aggressive and has more capacity to weather production increases to answer to consumer demand."

A Toyota spokesman dismissed concerns about losing the top spot.

"Being the largest automaker has never been our goal," Javier Moreno told AFP.

"We are optimistic about our success in 2011. As always, Toyota is committed to providing customers with high quality vehicles at affordable prices."

A GM spokesman said the automaker is "not interested in sales rank, we are focused on building the best vehicles in the world, that's what really matters."

Copyright by Agence France-Presse, 2011

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