Who the Heck Can Overtake Toyota?

Perhaps my opinion on this issue is a bit clouded right now, having spent all of last weekend at the Toyota (NYSE:TM) Grand Prix of Long Beach … but even if I hadn’t been surrounded by the Japanese auto giant’s massive race and event branding machine, it’s hard not to be impressed by the company.

Or its share price performance.

TM stock roared higher Wednesday after the company confirmed the pole position in the ongoing race to see who will be the world’s top automaker.

Toyota said it sold 2.43 million total vehicles during the first three months of the year, and that put it ahead of second-place General Motors (NYSE:GM), which sold 2.36 million vehicles. German auto giant Volkswagen (PINK:VLKAY) took third place, with a total of 2.27 million vehicles sold during the first quarter.

The interesting thing about this race is that despite crossing the Q1 finish line first, Toyota sales actually decelerated 2.2% from the same period last year. Meanwhile, GM sold 3.6% more vehicles than last year, while Volkswagen turned up the sales RPM by 5.1%.

For Toyota, standing atop the podium isn’t new, but it’s also by no means guaranteed. The maker of the popular Camry and Prius brands, among many others, just recaptured the sales crown last year after slipping to second behind GM.

Of course, it did take the combined negative effects of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in its home country to knock Toyota off the top of the mountain.

Still, before General Motors had its now infamous Great Recession stall (the one that required a massive taxpayer bailout), the U.S. auto giant was on top for about seven decades right up until 2008. So, at least historically speaking, Toyota knows it has a tremendous rival in its rear-view mirror.

The race for auto sales supremacy is really close in terms of just sheer numbers, and one or two big sales days in any given region could have turned the tables for GM. When you consider that GM is behind Toyota by only 70,000 vehicles sold, or just 2.9%, you realize that the battle remains really close, and that even a small wrong turn could change the tide.

The most likely location for that wrong turn to take place is China, where anti-Japanese sentiment has reared its nationalistic head because of territorial wrangling over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

In fact, sales in China were down 13% during Q1, in part due to some Chinese fearing a backlash from their countrymen if they were even seen in a Japanese automobile. Sales also struggled on the home front, as a cessation of subsidies given to buyers of “green vehicles” in Japan caused sales in that country to slump 15% in the first three months of the year.

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Yet despite its slowing overall vehicle sales, and the issues in China and Japan, Toyota’s share price continues firing on all cylinders. The stock now trades at a new multiyear high, although it remains well below the all-time high of just over $134 set in December 2006.

Year-to-date, TM shares have driven 18.4% higher. That performance leaves GM’s in the dust, as General Motors has only managed to rise 4.5% so far in this very bullish year.

For investors, there’s no doubt about who’s on top of the podium. Yet in terms of vehicle sales, the race remains close.

Could GM overtake Toyota? It could … but when it comes to getting a return on your investment, you’d be much better off driving a Toyota.

As of this writing, Jim Woods did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media, https://investorplace.com/2013/04/who-the-heck-can-overtake-toyota/.

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