Toyota Motor Corp., which came very close to beating rival General Motors last year for total car sales, took the lead from its American counterpart during the first 3 months of 2008.

Both companies reported growing sales globally except in the U.S. region where an economic slowdown bordering on a mild recession tripped up sales.

General Motors, which is struggling to regain profitability after record setting losses, is in the midst of a company-wide restructuring as it aims to cut costs and become more competitive.

Toyota has not only been selling more cars, but in contrast to GM has been profitable. However the Toyota-City, Japan-based firm has acknowledged and is working to rein in some quality control deficiencies as it has ramped up production.

The Japanese automaker reported Wednesday that sales rose 2.7 percent to 2.41 million vehicles in the first quarter. GM said global sales fell less than 1 percent to 2.25 million.

In the 2007 sales race, Toyota came within a hair's breadth of outpacing its American counterpart. Toyota was just 3,106 auto sales short of surpassing GM in total sales for 2007, with the Japanese company selling 9.366 million compared with 9.369 million for the Detroit firm.

Toyota U.S. sales in the first quarter fell 5.6 percent while GM declined 11 percent.

For 2008, Toyota predicted 9.85 million vehicles sales. GM did not give a forecast.

GM's strongest growth came outside the U.S. where its Latin America-Africa-Middle East segment, with 20 percent growth, followed by 5.8 percent growth in the Asia-Pacific region and growing 3.3 percent in Europe.