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Toyota Passes GM To Become #1

This shouldn't come as a shock.

In fact, to say it was expected would be an understatement.

The final sales figures for 2008 are in and Toyota has passed General Motors to become #1 in the world. This is the first time in 77 years; an automaker other than GM has been top dog in global auto sales. Last year, Toyota sold 8.9 million vehicles worldwide compared to 8.35 million for GM.

A few years ago, this kind of news would elicit hand wringing in Detroit, another round of "Detroit is Failing" headlines, and statements of false bravado from GM executives who often reacted with denial whenever the company slipped.

Those days are gone.

Most in Detroit have grown to accept Toyota would eventually pass GM. Editors around the country shrug their shoulders when told GM is no longer #1. And among GM execs, president Fritz Henderson summed up the reaction of many in the company when he was asked by an AP reporter about Toyota passing up GM. "To me the most important thing to make GM successful," he said. Any time spent on worrying about being passed by Toyota is "time wasted," he said.

He's right. And frankly his candor is refreshing.

Since GM flirted with collapsing last fall, there's no room for false bravado. This is a company moving as quickly as it can to avoid bankruptcy. It has dramatically cut production. It's put Hummer, Saab, and Saturn up for sale. And to keep from going under, it will have to re-work billions in debt and a complex labor contract with the UAW. In other words, these guys have too much work to fixate on whether they or Toyota are #1 in the world.

In many ways, GM is taking a page from Toyota. The Japanese auto maker has thrived by focusing on its own performance and not whether it can thump its chest and say, "We're #1!"

Look at Toyota in China. A few years back, Toyota's presence in China was minimal and GM was the undisputed king. As Toyota has picked up sales and momentum in China (the second largest car market in the world) it has remained almost mute about its success. Why? A big reason is because the historically strained relations between the Japanese and Chinese makes Toyota reluctant to draw attention to itself in that country. There is another reason Toyota doesn't say much about its growth in China: It's not in the company's DNA to boast.

This doesn't mean GM should just accept sliding to #2 in global sales. Far from it. But for those around the country who get caught up in titles and rankings, relax about this latest news.

If you are a fan of GM you should be more focused on whether this company can pull itself out of a hole that threatens its future.

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Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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