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Toyota sold more cars and trucks than General Motors in the first quarter of this year, ending the US group’s 76-year reign as the world’s largest carmaker.

The Japanese carmaker on Tuesday reported a 9 per cent increase in worldwide sales to 2.35m in the three months to March, compared with 2.26m units for GM.

Toyota’s eclipse of GM largely reflects the poor performance of America’s three big carmakers in their home market, where more carbuyers are shunning their large, gas-guzzling vehicles for more fuel-efficient Japanese ones.

Over the last year 15 per cent of Americans who bought cars bought a Toyota.

GM is doing well in many foreign markets and still sells more cars than Toyota in the US, but is losing market share to it and other foreign competitors. Toyota last year surpassed Chrysler as America’s number-three carmaker.

Toyota’s rise to the top global car-manufacturing spot caps a remarkable journey for a company founded in the late 19th century by the inventor of Japan’s first power loom, which grew to become a pioneer of lean production.

But its success is likely to fuel calls in the US for action to protect the Detroit-area carmakers’ interests.

Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, has described the yen as “substantially undervalued” and was recently quoted blaming the currency’s weakness for putting US automakers at a competitive disadvantage.

Toyota is trying to preclude any backlash by stressing its good corporate citizenship.

The company makes most of the cars it sells in the US locally, and recently named Jim Press – head of North American operations – as its first non-Japanese director.

The company sought to play down Tuesday’s milestone. “We’re not commenting on comparative performance,” said Toyota. But the group added: “We think it’s a reflection of how our products have become accepted by customers around the world.”

GM pointed out that it had set sales records in several foreign markets in the first quarter and that it was “still a sales leader by a substantial margin” in the US.

Toyota said its strong quarterly performance, which includes sales by its Daihatsu and Hino subsidiaries, was supported by buoyant demand in the US, where sales were up 11 per cent in the fourth quarter.

US-made Camrys – the most popular car in America – the RAV4 sport utility vehicle and the Prius hybrid car were behind the rise in sales, Toyota said.

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