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GM retakes place as world’s biggest automaker

Hurt by quake, Toyota falls to 3d behind VW

Paul Sancya/associated press

A Chevrolet concept coupe was displayed last week at the Detroit auto show. Toyota had outsold GM since 2008.

DETROIT - After three years of settling for second place, General Motors reclaimed its title as the world’s largest automaker in 2011, a year when its sales grew in every region of the globe while Toyota sales were hampered by major natural disasters.

GM said yesterday that it sold 9,025,942 vehicles last year, 7.6 percent more than in 2010. Its closest competitor was Volkswagen, whose sales grew 14 percent to 8.156 million, with Toyota falling to third place.

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Toyota has not released final sales results for the year but it estimated last month that sales totaled 7.9 million vehicles, a 6 percent drop.

The industry’s sales crown means little beyond bragging rights. But GM’s ability to climb back on top, only two years removed from its government rescue and bankruptcy, is certain to bolster morale within the company and strengthen the Obama administration’s contention that its bailout of the industry was worthwhile. GM was the world’s largest automaker for more than 70 years before Toyota surpassed it in 2008.

Publicly, at least, GM executives have been careful to avoid celebrating amid Toyota’s struggles. Toyota only recently was able to return production levels to normal levels after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“I want to win in the marketplace, but I want to win against a healthy and vibrant Toyota and Honda,’’ GM’s chief executive, Daniel F. Akerson, said last year. “Next year, we’ll put the gloves back on, and I’m sure they’ll go right back at us.’’

GM did not highlight its first-place finish, burying its global sales figures at the bottom of an announcement about its Chevrolet brand selling a record 4.76 million cars and trucks last year.

Last week, Akerson acknowledged that rising sales are a positive sign.

“It’s one indicator. What’s most important for our owners, our shareholders, is that we produce margins and profits and cash flow,’’ he told reporters at the Detroit auto show.

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