General Motors and Toyota both want this story to go away—but it only seems to be intensifying.
Everybody in the auto industry knows that sooner or later, Toyota will unambiguously surpass GM in sales and become the world's biggest automaker. So when it happens, it should be anticlimactic—an iconic moment, sure, marking the end of GM's 77-year reign as the No. 1 carmaker. But then everybody will just go on with the business of building and selling cars.
Unless the two auto giants tie. Or the horse race is too close to call. Or there's a technical dispute over the numbers. All of which seem to have happened, dragging out a story that even journalists are getting tired of.
Both GM and Toyota reported selling 9.37 million vehicles worldwide in 2007. But that's just a round number, so auto analysts are looking a few more digits past the decimal point to see who actually sold more. Executives at Toyota hate this story because it draws unwanted attention in the United States to a surging importer, and at first they refused to elaborate on their rounded number. But a besieged Toyota executive in Japan finally agreed to add an extra digit to the number, pegging Toyota's 2007 sales at a more precise 9.366 million. GM's number comes out to 9.369 million, about 3,000 more cars than Toyota—so that settles it! "GM Edges Toyota for Global Sales Title," Automotive News proclaimed in a headline on Wednesday. The American giant can keep the title for one more year, after all.
But hold on a minute—it depends how you count cars. In its number, GM includes sales of cars by a joint venture in China called Wuling, which GM owns only 34 percent of. Industry practice is to attribute sales to an automaker only if they come from a majority-owned division. By that standard, Automotive News deducted about 516,000 cars from GM's total, pushing Toyota ahead by nearly half a million cars. A day after anointing GM the winner, the trade publication reversed itself: "We Call It: Toyota Topped GM in 2007."
This could all change again. As a routine matter, Toyota will provide final, official 2007 sales figures in a few weeks, and GM could adjust its numbers, too.
Here's a different idea: GM should simply hand over the crown and get this all over with. It should agree with the Automotive News calculations, or rebook some '07 sales in '08, or even give back some cars if that's what's necessary to become No. 2. It's painful enough for GM to get bumped from the top spot, and worse still for the ordeal to get drawn out like the forced march of an exiled dictator.
With clever leadership, GM can even benefit from becoming the underdog. But first it needs to attain No. 2—and give the analysts something else to write about.