DETROIT — Toyota has widened its global sales lead over General Motors after bouncing back from a series of natural disasters.
The company said Friday it sold 7.4 million vehicles globally in the first nine months of this year — 450,000 more than General Motors. While Toyota’s sales rose 28 percent in that period, GM’s rose 2.5 percent, to 6.95 million cars and light-duty trucks.
Toyota’s factories were hobbled by an earthquake and tsunami in early 2011, leaving it short of cars in the U.S. and other regions. But now the company has recovered, and is building and selling more vehicles globally. Germany’s Volkswagen AG is also seeing strong global sales.
GM is more concerned with profitable growth than the global sales race, spokesman Jim Cain said. Toyota has made similar statements, but executives concede privately that the crown is a matter of corporate pride for both companies. GM was the top-selling automaker for more than seven decades before losing the title to Toyota in 2008.
But Toyota faces a challenge in keeping its lead this year. Sales are falling in China because of a territorial dispute with Japan. Japan nationalized islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by China and Taiwan. The move set off violent protests in China and a widespread call to boycott Japanese goods.
Toyota, which makes the Prius hybrid, Camry sedan and Lexus luxury models, had planned to sell 1 million vehicles in China this year. But the company no longer expects to reach that number. It has not given a new target.
In September, Toyota’s vehicle sales in China dropped to 44,100 vehicles, from 86,000 a year earlier. In August, Toyota sold 75,280 vehicles in China, down 15 percent from the same month last year.
Even if Toyota’s China sales fall short of 1 million, Nomura Securities Co. auto analyst Masataka Kunugimoto expects them to gradually recover to 900,000 vehicles for the year.
"We don’t expect this kind of drop to continue," he said. "The Chinese market is still growing."
Still, he sees GM and other non-Japanese manufacturers getting a sales boost as Chinese buyers avoid Japanese products.
Last year, Toyota’s production was hit by the earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan and then by flooding in Thailand. Its sales were also dented by massive U.S. safety recalls. That combination of problems dropped Toyota to No. 3 in global sales after GM and Volkswagen.
VW is closing in on GM after notching big sales gains in the U.S. this year. The maker of the Passat and Jetta cars sold 6.7 million light vehicles from January through September, up 9.7 percent from a year earlier. But VW’s challenge could fall short this year because Europe’s weak economy has hurt sales in that region.
GM also has problems on its home turf. Sales growth in the U.S. — its biggest market — is lagging. Sales are up 3.4 percent through September, far behind the 15-percent growth for the industry as a whole.