Toyota said Monday it sold 2.34 million vehicles globally in the July-September quarter, fewer than General Motors' tally, as its U.S. rival regained the lead in the race to be the world's top automaker.
Toyota's worldwide vehicle sales for the first nine months of this year -- at 7.05 million vehicles -- also fell short of Detroit-based GM's sales of 7.06 million vehicles for the same period.
But the numbers Toyota released Monday show the Japanese automaker running neck-and-neck against General Motors, which sold 2.38 million vehicles in the third quarter.
Toyota beat GM in global vehicle sales in the first half of the year, riding on its reputation for high quality, low-mileage small cars such as the Camry, Corolla and gas-electric hybrid Prius.
Some analysts say it's a matter of time before the Japanese automaker -- which built its business in the decades after World War II by imitating American automakers -- will close in on GM.
Toyota's global vehicle sales for the latest quarter grew 4 percent from the same period a year ago, while sales for the first nine months of the year grew 7 percent.
"With oil prices rising, Toyota has the advantage in the long run," said Yoshihiro Okumura, auto analyst at Chibagin Asset Management. "Toyota is making a dash to the top."
Toyota has been in a slight lapse in introducing new models, but its momentum for growth is picking up as it comes out with new offerings, Okumura said. New models tend to boost sales, and some drivers hold off on purchases until a product gets remodeled.
In August, Toyota set a global sales target of 10.4 million vehicles for 2009 -- a number that would put it far ahead of the current industry record of 9.55 million vehicles sold by GM in 1978.
GM is fiercely fighting back against Toyota by boosting overseas sales. GM has worn the industry crown of No. 1 automaker for 76 years.
Soaring gas prices have helped to lift Toyota's sales, but it saw its U.S. sales dip slightly last month, partly because of a record set in the same month a year earlier.
Toyota is lowering its sales target in Japan for this year because of a stagnant market, but it has said that better-than-expected demand in other overseas markets will offset the domestic decline.
GM, which has been trimming jobs and cutting costs, reported last week that third-quarter global sales rose 4 percent to 2.38 million cars and trucks, led by increases in emerging markets outside the United States.
Toyota reported selling 4.72 million vehicles during the first half of the year compared with GM's 4.67 million.
GM still led Toyota in vehicles produced worldwide during the first half of the year. Toyota and its group companies produced 4.71 million vehicles in the first half, inching up to GM's 4.75 million vehicles.
Toyota's Profit Edge
The race is more than about the number of cars people are buying.
GM's profitability falls far short of Toyota, which is rich in cash to invest in technology research and model development.
GM's second-quarter net income totaled $891 million, largely from overseas operations. It was the third straight quarter of profit, and a dramatic reversal from the $3.4 billion loss it posted in the same period last year.
For the April-June period, Toyota raked in earnings of 491.54 billion yen ($4.27 billion; euro2.99 billion), its biggest quarterly profit ever and up 32.3 percent from a year earlier.
A recent study of industry costs and profits by Laurie Harbour-Felax found GM made $2,123 less per vehicle than Toyota in 2006 in North America.
Toyota, the most profitable of all automakers on a per-vehicle basis, increased its profit per vehicle from $1,175 in 2005 to $1,977 in 2006, the report said.
GM is still losing money for every vehicle sold in North America but lowered that loss to $146 in 2006 from $1,271 in 2005, mostly because of cost reductions, including thousands of job cuts, it said.