By TOM KRISHER
AP Auto Writer
DETROIT (AP) - Toyota has taken the global automotive sales lead from General Motors, selling 2.41 million vehicles to GM's 2.25 million over the first three months of the year.
GM said Wednesday its first-quarter sales dropped across the globe by less than 1 percent, but Toyota said its sales were up 2.7 percent during the January-March period.
GM barely won the global sales race with Japan-based Toyota Motor Corp. last year. But Toyota overtook General Motors Corp. as the world's top automaker as measured by global vehicle production in 2007.
A record 64 percent of GM's sales in the latest quarter came from outside the United States.
Strong demand in Europe supported Toyota's worldwide sales.
GM posted record sales in three of its four regions, but a 10 percent drop in North America pulled down the overall numbers. Sales were up 8 percent outside of North America, the Detroit automaker said.
"While the challenges of the U.S. economy continue to put pressure on the automotive industry there, we saw nearly 20 percent growth in the Latin America, Africa and Middle East, and 6 percent growth in the Asia Pacific region," John Middlebrook, GM vice president of global sales, said in a statement.
Mike DiGiovanni, GM's executive director of global markets and industry analysis, said Toyota outsold GM in the first quarter of last year, too, yet GM was able to retake the lead by the end of the year.
He said the company is more focused on turning around its North American operations and becoming profitable worldwide than it is on beating Toyota.
"We obviously want to win, and we'd like to be No. 1 in sales at the end of the year," he said. "But really our focus right now is on profitable, sustainable growth across the world."
Toyota said output of popular, fuel-efficient small cars such as the Corolla model grew strongly in China, while production of pickup trucks rose steadily in Thailand during the quarter.
Some analysts say it's only a matter of time before Toyota - which built its business in the decades after World War II by imitating American automakers - overtakes GM in terms of annual global sales as well as production.
GM shares rose 36 cents, or 1.8 percent, to $20.87 in morning trading Wednesday while Toyota fell $1.05 to $99.51.
In the Japanese fiscal year through March 2008, Toyota's global output rose 6.4 percent from a year earlier to 9.66 million vehicles.
Honda Motor Co., Japan's No. 2 automaker, said its global production rose 4.5 percent from a year ago to 1.02 million vehicles in the January-March quarter.
Nissan Motor Co. said its global output rose 9.4 percent from a year ago to 950,878 vehicles during the quarter.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)