Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, at the North American International… (Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images )
Less than two years after emerging from bankruptcy,General Motors Co.has regained the title of the world's largest automaker.
GM's worldwide sales rose 7.6% to 9 million vehicles in 2011. The Detroit manufacturer last held the top spot in 2007 before it was surpassed byToyota Motor Corp.the next year.
Chevrolet, GM's flagship brand, set a record by selling nearly 4.8 million vehicles. That was more than what many entire auto companies posted in sales last year, including Nissan and Honda.
"It is an accomplishment that GM has been able to reverse the tide in the U.S. and Asia, and they are doing very well in emerging markets considering just a few years ago the company was in real challenging straights," said John F. Hoffecker, an auto industry consultant with AlixPartners.
But selling the most cars is not always an enviable position, analysts said.
"What is important is to be the healthiest, not the largest," said Thilo Koslowski, an auto analyst atGartner Inc."A competition to be the biggest of them all won't help the car industry."
GM once dominated global auto production but produced many vehicles that sold at a loss to keep production lines running and to honor union employment contracts. The automaker lost about $100 billion in the years before its 2009 bankruptcy and government bailout but has been consistently profitable since the restructuring, earning about $1.7 billion in the latest quarter.
GM has repaid $24.1 billion of the $49.5 billion in federal government aid it received. The repayments include the proceeds from the automaker's public stock offering. The government's holdings in the company's stock are worth about $10 billion based on Thursday's closing share price of $24.82.
Toyota also ran into problems as it grew to be the largest car seller in 2008. Akio Toyoda, the automaker's president, has said that rapid growth eclipsed Toyota's focus on safety and reliability and contributed to millions of recall notices the company has issued in recent years to correct a host of problems.
Germany'sVolkswagen Group, which sells the VW and Audi brands in the U.S., was the second-largest seller of vehicles worldwide. Its sales rose 14.3% to 8.2 million vehicles.
Toyota won't release its final numbers until next week but looks to be third. It previously said it expected 2011 sales to be about 7.9 million vehicles, down about 6% from 2010.
Toyota was hurt last year by parts shortages resulting from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
The automaker is likely to rebound this year, as its supply problems are behind it and Toyota rolls out new models. Colin Couchman, an analyst for IHS Automotive, expects Toyota's global sales to reach about 8.6 million this year, enough to regain second place.
He said VW won't have an increase this year and could fall back slightly because of the economic turmoil caused by the Eurozone debt crisis.
"VW will be hard-pushed to eke out further gains for 2012," he said, but it won't be as vulnerable as Fiat, Renault and other European brands hurt by the lagging economy in the region because VW's core market is Germany, which is "not expected to fall back as much as some European markets."
South Korean corporate siblingsHyundai Motor Co.andKia Motors Corp.saw their combined sales rise 14.6% to 6.5 million vehicles in 2011. Its gains could be more modest this year because the brands are bumping up against manufacturing constraints, especially in the U.S. market where the South Koreans have rapidly increased market share in recent years.
Ford Motor Co.sold an estimated 5.3 million vehicles last year, a 6.9% gain, according to IHS.
Couchman said he believed that GM's sales, which include the cars sold by its joint-venture partners in China, would continue to grow this year despite the problems in Europe that are expected to hurt sales by its Opel division.
GM's two largest markets last year were China, where GM and its partners sold more than 2.5 million vehicles, an 8.3% increase from the prior year, and the U.S, where GM also sold 2.5 million, a 13% gain.
In the Los Angeles metropolitan market, Kia was the fastest-growing automotive brand in the region. Its L.A.-area sales soared 105% last year, almost three times its growth nationally, according to auto research company Edmunds.com.
"The brand has also developed an effective marketing icon with the Kia hamster, which has struck a chord with Gen Y and has placed the Kia Soul as one of the brand's top-selling vehicles," said Jessica Caldwell, an Edmunds.com analyst.
The Edmunds data covered only retail sales and did not include vehicles sold to rental car companies, commercial customers and government agencies.
Chrysler was the second-fastest-growing brand, up 68% last year. Chrysler's Jeep brand saw the third-largest growth, climbing 64%. It was helped by sales of the new-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee, which rose 191% in the region last year.
Toyota was the top seller of any brand in the region last year, although its L.A.-area sales fell 5% as it struggled with tight inventory resulting from the Japanese earthquake. Honda was second, Edmunds said. It was followed by Ford, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz.
The five top-selling vehicles by retail sales were the Toyota Camry, Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Toyota Corolla and Toyota Prius.