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Tue 1 May 2007 01:04 PM

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GM: still in the race

Dull old Toyota may have overtaken General Motors, but the latter still has plenty of drive.

There were no fireworks, no fanfare, no ticker-tape parades. We had been anticipating it for months, but when Toyota did quietly overtake General Motors as the world's biggest car-maker last month, it wasn't exactly a day of celebration for car enthusiasts like you and me. In the first quarter of 2007, the Japanese giant produced 2.35 million vehicles, compared with GM's 2.26 million in the same period.

But don't count GM down and out quite yet. It is number one in the fast-growing Chinese car market and its sales actually jumped more than 20 percent in the Asia/Pacific region this year. Business in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East has leapt by 17 percent, and by six percent in Europe. It's biggest problems are in America where, still numbed by rising fuel prices, consumers are shying away from ‘trucks' and SUVs big time, the main constituents of GM's new model programme Stateside.

Still the longer-term picture for GM is looking rosy, and Bob Lutz is a man with a plan for a turnaround that is underway. As the septuagenarian happily pointed out at a recent breakfast with Mid-East journos, a big fat pension cheque from former employer Chrysler means he doesn't have to work. ‘I work because I enjoy it and I see GM as a huge ocean liner with little tug boats gradually turning it around,' he explained. ‘And I don't plan to retire until the turnaround is complete'.

But the most exciting thing for us car guys is big Bob's contention that it is great products that make a company great. That analysts and product planners have to be given the boot, and mavericks and non-formulaic approaches should be embraced. He openly gushes in admiration for what BMW has done with the new MINI.

‘We've put the designers back in the driver's seat at GM,' proclaims Lutz. ‘We let them be the driving force behind new products. At times they create products that are not the result of product planning, and that's the ideal way to run the company.' With the Chevy HHR, Saturn Sky and forthcoming Camaro, that much is evident.

Alarmingly though there is a hint that we in the Gulf might be missing out a little, except for some exciting Caddys, the new Lumina SS and of course the sensational Corvette.

Toyota remains steadfastly dull, however. We're still waiting to officially hear when we'll get the cool FJ Cruiser (September I hear - can't wait!), but the Jap giant no longer makes the Supra, Celica nor even the MR2 sports cars, though there are suggestions of a hybrid F1-influenced Supra on the way.

Okay so it can't make Corollas and Prados quick enough to meet demand, but if it doesn't start putting out some exciting kit, it will find GM creeping back past it very quickly indeed.

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