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GM: Company of Contrasts

How's this for a contrast? While GM (NYSE: GM  ) CEO Rick Wagoner was spending time at the North American International Auto Show answering questions about bankruptcy, he was also reporting the company's highest worldwide sales in 27 years.

That's right: GM sold 9.2 million vehicles last year, only the second time (the last was 1978) that the company has sold more than 9 million vehicles. For those wondering, it seems likely that Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) will indeed surpass GM as the world's largest car producer, with 2006 production of roughly 9.1 million units.

Contrast GM's U.S. numbers with its robust international results. GM gained market share in Europe, the Latin America/Africa/Middle East region, and its Asia Pacific sector (which includes China, India, and Korea, among others).

So why is GM hurting? Although international sales outpaced U.S. sales for the first time, composing 51.1% of total sales, GM's U.S. market share in the latest reporting quarter fell from 28.5% to 25.6%. Those rotten U.S. results also caused the company's worldwide market share to drop from 15.4% to 14.6% year over year.

GM is using the North American International Auto Show in Detroit to make its case for the future. Besides new SUV models, the company unveiled a new Camaro concept car yesterday. Given Ford's (NYSE: F  ) success with the redesigned Mustang, such a move seems a bit like playing catch-up to me. But with Chevy once more the U.S.'s largest-selling brand, returning a popular muscle car back to the lineup certainly helps bolster Chevy's potential for continued top billing.

Wagoner isn't predicting improvement in the company's U.S. market share. A strike at bankrupt parts supplier Delphi (OTC BB: DPHIQ.PK) wouldn't do much to ameliorate GM's already fragile situation, as it might result in less auto production for the vehicle maker. On the upside, GM has worked to improve its cost structure, and analysts see profits in the year ahead.

In fact, GM's biggest contrast may lie in those earnings projections. Analysts expect the company to lose more than $4 a share in 2005, but earn $0.91 a share in 2006. If the worldwide economy remains healthy, that seems doable.

Those hoping that GM might win the top car or truck awards at this year's Detroit auto show will be disappointed. Last year's winner in the car category, DaimlerChrysler's (NYSE: DCX  ) Chrysler 3000, was a runaway sales success. This year's winners are both Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) models: the Civic and the Ridgeline. It seems GM will have to wait another year to see whether its luck has really changed.

Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own any shares in the companies mentioned. Clickhereto see The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.

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