General Motors

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has fallen into second place in auto sales for the first time in 77 years, but the company implied Wednesday it can regain the top spot.

A global sales decline of 11% in 2008 put GM in the No. 2 slot behind

Toyota

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.

"I think the story has yet to be written -- nobody really knows the answer to it," said Mike DiGiovanni, GM 's executive director of global markets, on a sales call with reporters and analysts.

He said GM beat Toyota in 17 of the top 26 emerging markets -- including the top four, Brazil, Russia, India and China -- while 2008 sales declines were steepest in the U.S. and Western Europe, where GM is stronger than Toyota.

"As these markets recover, we'll be in a good position to grow in all regions and we'll let the sales figures grow as they may," DiGiovanni said, adding later that, "I don't think being No. 1 in global sales means much at all to the average consumer. What matter most to the consumer is strong brands and strong products."

For now, that is GM's focus, he said, as the company works to prepare the viability plan it will submit to Congress on Feb. 17.

GM has taken a conservative approach in its 2009 sales estimate, which is part of the plan. "We are the lowest forecast for the U.S. calendar year of anybody out there," DiGiovanni said. "The reason we're doing that (is) we want to drive our break-even down as low as we can get it. We want to use this crisis as an opportunity to get incredibly lean."

Last week, the automaker said it expects 2009 sales of 10.5 million vehicles and worldwide sales of 57.5 million vehicles. Meanwhile,

Ford

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projects 2009 sales volume within a wide range, with the low in the 10 million range and the high at 12.2 million.

Looking ahead, GM expects improvement in the latter half of the year, a result of government stimulus packages around the world and stabilization in the U.S. housing market.

The first quarter will present problems. Annualized January sales could average below 10 million, compared with 10.5 million in the fourth quarter. DiGiovanni said the number reflects declining sales to rental car companies, an intended result of reduced inventories and temporary plant closures. Absent rental car sales, retail sales will be about 8.4 million, up from 8.2 million in November and December. "We are seeing stabilization in the retail run rate," he said.

During 2008, GM sold 8.35 million vehicles. Toyota said Tuesday that its 2008 global sales totaled 8.97 million cars, down 4.9%.

While GM sales grew 3% in Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, that could not offset sales declines of 21% in North America and 7% in Europe. GM sold 5.37 million vehicles outside the U.S., accounting for 64% of its global sales volume, up from 59% in 2007.