DETROIT - General Motors Corp.'s worldwide sales fell slightly last year, but GM's total of 9.09 million cars and trucks probably will allow it to keep the title of world's largest auto seller.

GM said yesterday that its 2006 sales fell 0.9 percent from 9.17 million in 2005.

Toyota Motor Corp. has estimated that it sold 8.8 million vehicles last year, but final numbers will not be released until later this month.

It is likely to be a much closer race this year, according to several auto-industry analysts, who say that, with Toyota's experiencing growth in North America and other areas, GM may be nudged out of the top spot.

GM chief executive officer Rick Wagoner, however, has vowed to fight to keep it.

"Let's just say it's going to be a good old-fashioned horse race for 2007," said Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for the auto-consulting company IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Toyota has said it expects to produce 9.42 million vehicles this year. GM has not disclosed 2007 worldwide production estimates, but Wagoner has said the company has the capacity to produce more than Toyota said it would make this year.

"Being the largest car company in the world can't be a focus, it has to be a byproduct of giving people in each market the vehicles they really want. GM enjoys that position today," John Middlebrook, GM's vice president for global sales, said in a news release.

GM is struggling with lagging North American sales and a corporate restructuring. It attributed the 2006 decline in part to planned cuts of 75,000 vehicles that had been sold to rental-car companies for little profit. GM's U.S. sales were 4.12 million in 2006, down about 9 percent from the previous year.

The company sold more cars and trucks overseas than it did at home last year. GM said a preliminary count of its non- U.S. sales last year was 4.97 million vehicles, or 55 percent of the worldwide total. That is up about 7 percent from 2005.

Sales grew 18 percent in GM's Asia-Pacific market and 17 percent in its Latin America, Africa and Middle East region.

Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecast services for CSM Worldwide, an auto-industry consulting company in Northville, Mich., said GM was not likely to boost production solely to beat Toyota. He said GM wanted to make money more than it wanted to be No. 1.

"If GM can be more profitable selling fewer vehicles at higher margins, that's the route GM is going to take," he said. "In the end, profit is king."

GM's wild card in the race with Toyota is China, where its total sales rose 32 percent last year from 2005 to about 877,000 vehicles. China's biggest-selling automaker last year was Shanghai General Motors Corp., a GM joint venture, with 365,400 vehicles sold, according to a Chinese industry group.

"GM's had a lot of growth in China, and I expect them to continue growing there in 2007," Merkle, the industry consultant, said. "I don't know if it's enough to offset the losses in other areas of the world, namely North America."

Sales Highlights

For General Motors cars and trucks in 2006.

Worldwide sales: 9.09 million vehicles, down 0.9 percent from 2005.

Foreign sales: 4.97 million, 55 percent of global total.

Sales in China: 877,000, up 32 percent from 2005.

Chevrolet sales: 4.3 million worldwide, down 1.6 percent from 2005.

Hummer sales: 82,000 worldwide, up 34 percent from 2005.

SOURCE: General Motors Corp.

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