The curse of being No. 1

TOKYO -- The race is on again. And the media are all abuzz.

General Motors Co., fresh out of bankruptcy and rejuvenated by its IPO, is on the verge of reclaiming the crown of world’s No. 1 automaker from interloping rival Toyota.

Toyota Motor Corp. claimed the title again in 2010, for a third year, according to figures out this week. But it edged GM by a mere 30,000 units -- Toyota’s 8.42 million to GM’s 8.39 million.

But why all the hoopla about being No. 1?

During its decades at the top, GM degenerated into a behemoth of bloated waste and arrogance before collapsing into bankruptcy. And Toyota’s race to supplant GM propelled it on a path of self-destructive overextension that triggered an unprecedented recall crisis.

I shake my head when companies like Volkswagen make public goals of being the world’s biggest automaker. Or when Hyundai blithely boosts sales at seemingly superhuman rates.

Do they know something GM and Toyota don’t about how to manage the sprawl?

Toyota, for one, has sworn off the sauce of chasing volume for volume’s sake. Few executives in Toyota City will lose sleep when they slide to No. 2 -- and definitely not President Akio Toyoda.

Sometimes, it’s best to check your ego as well as your growth.

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