STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People used to talk about the big three automakers in Detroit. Maybe we should be talking instead about the big two automakers on the globe. Toyota was the number automaker in 2010. In 2011, General Motors regained the top spot. In 2012, back to Toyota again.
Here's Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton.
TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: After careening from back to back crises - first, the recalls, then the tsunami, Toyota is number one in worldwide sales again. The company says it sold at least 9.7 million vehicles - it's still counting - passing GM, which sold 9.3 million.
But Toyota executives like Wade Hoyt insist the title isn't important.
WADE HOYT: Nobody's breaking out the sake. We want to be number one in the hearts and minds of our customers and if that makes us number one overall, that's just a bonus.
SAMILTON: General Motors executives also say it doesn't matter. These days, the Detroit automaker is focused on growing its profitability, its vehicle quality and its customer loyalty.
Analyst Larry Dominique of TrueCar.com says GM appears to be doing all the right things, but the company has a long way to go before it can beat Toyota at the loyalty game.
LARRY DOMINIQUE: It's not just the 60-year-old who owned five Toyotas. It's their kids, and their kids' kids. And this loyalty has grown to such a proportion that it makes up such an important part of their sales every year.
SAMILTON: There is one company that does openly admit to wanting to be number one. That's Volkswagen. The company sold only 200,000 fewer vehicles last year than GM, and thinks it can pass both GM and Toyota in the next few years.
Dominique says as long as Volkswagen does it the right way - boosting quality, not incentives - that's OK. But he says things are so competitive in the auto industry now, the crown could bounce from Toyota to GM to Volkswagen and back again for years.
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.