TOKYO -- This year's three-way race for the global sales crown is neck and neck, but a revived Toyota Motor Corp. has taken the early lead.
Worldwide sales at the Japanese carmaker surged 32 percent to 2.36 million units in the January-March quarter. The tally catapulted Toyota ahead of rival title contenders General Motors and the Volkswagen Group.
Toyota also booked the biggest percentage jump over the previous year as it rebounded from a quarter in which production was hammered by Japan's March 11 earthquake.
GM, which bumped Toyota from the top spot last year, booked a 3 percent gain for global sales of 2.28 million in the quarter.
VW, which was No. 3 last year but is publicly gunning to be the world's biggest automaker by 2018, reported an 11 percent advance. At the end of March, it remained third with 2.26 million, sharply narrowing the gap with GM.
Toyota, which first took the top spot from GM in 2008, targets record sales of 9.58 million this calendar year. Neither GM nor VW has offered a full-year sales forecast.
Toyota's global sales peaked at 9.37 million in 2007. Then it was hit by the global financial meltdown, a worldwide recall crisis and a year of natural disasters in Japan and Thailand. It is just now recovering.
Toyota's consolidated sales include results from its Daihatsu Motor Co. minicar subsidiary and its Hino Motors Ltd. truckmaking unit.
Under President Akio Toyoda, Toyota routinely disavows chasing volume and downplays the importance of being No. 1. "I'm always saying that the global auto industry has seven or eight top companies," Toyoda said of the rankings. "We are just one of the leading companies."
Executives often blame reckless expansion in the early 2000s for the quality problems that befell Toyota in 2009-10. Toyoda is framing 2012 as a fresh start and his first "normal" year since taking office. And he expects huge improvements in sales, profits, product appeal and quality.
The company has overhauled product development to deliver what it hopes will be more exciting and fuel-efficient vehicles. And a flurry of new arrivals this year -- such as the Prius C, Scion FR-S and several redesigned Lexus offerings -- should lift volume.