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2nd-place GM pledges to ‘fight hard’ for sales

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WASHINGTON — General Motors Corp.'s leader is vowing to "fight hard for every sale" after Toyota Motor Corp. said it sold more cars and trucks in a quarter than GM did for the first time ever.

GM Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner made the comment in an e-mail message to company officials only hours after the disclosure on Tuesday of Toyota's first-quarter sales results.

He said he "didn't welcome this morning's news, and I know you didn't either," but said GM's business strategies around the globe were working and would help the auto manufacturer succeed.

"We still have the majority of the year in front of us, and we will fight hard for every sale — all the while staying focused on our long-term goals as a global, growing company," Wagoner said in the e-mail obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Toyota said Tuesday that it sold 2.35 million vehicles worldwide in the January-March period, surpassing the 2.26 million vehicles GM sold in the quarter, according to preliminary figures.

General Motors, which has been the world's largest automaker for 76 years, saw its U.S. sales decline 5.5 percent through the first quarter. Toyota, meanwhile, had sales increases of 11.2 percent in the key market, helped by consumer interest in fuel-efficient vehicles.

The title of the world's No. 1 automaker depends on annual worldwide vehicle production, rather than sales, so that distinction won't be determined until production numbers are released for the entire year.

Toyota has downplayed the possibility of vaulting over GM in the global market. Asked about the prospects in Detroit last week, Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said: "You will never know until all the numbers are in."

Toyota officials have stressed the importance of improving their quality to remain a leader in the auto industry. Analysts have anticipated the company would soon challenge GM for the top spot.

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said GM would likely use the news as a motivational tool for the company. But the company has made clear its intention to place a premium on profitability over production numbers.

"It's a very different discipline today than it has been. What is increasingly true is that market share is nice, but profits are essential," Cole said.

Analyzing the first-quarter sales in the e-mail, Wagoner noted Toyota outsold GM by a wide margin in Japan and continued to cut into GM's lead in the United States. But he said GM was winning in most of the other global markets and leading "in the key developing markets like China."

"What's really important is our plan to address the competitive challenges from Toyota, and the many other strong global competitors, in our industry," Wagoner wrote, listing the company's progress on several fronts.

He said GM needed to "keep developing great new cars and trucks," an effort which has been led by GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. Wagoner predicted that the "future of our new products is even brighter."