DETROIT – There will be no gnashing of teeth if, as expected, General Motors Corp. loses its global sales crown to Toyota Motor Corp.

“Leadership is important,” says Mark LaNeve, vice president-vehicle sales, service and marketing, GM North America. “But what’s most important is that we grow our reputation.”

GM, which has held the top sales spot for 76 years, has not released its final data for 2007 or a forecast for full-2008. But industry forecasts call for Toyota to surpass GM as the world’s top vehicle seller as early as this year.

Toyota expects its global sales to hit 9.85 million vehicles this year, up 5.2% from 2007’s anticipated tally of 9.36 million.

LaNeve, who warns forecasts differ from source to source, says GM expects to lead in as many as 13 of the world’s top 15 markets. Perhaps more importantly, he adds, GM continues to improve retail share by further penetrating important markets on its home soil.

Citing a sharper focus on passenger cars, small cross/utility vehicles and hybrid-electric vehicles, LaNeve points to gains on the West Coast, where GM products struggle compared with the East and Midwest markets.

The redesigned and recently launched ’08 Chevy Malibu sedan, for example, enjoys a turn-rate at West Coast dealers of less than seven days. That model lineup includes a mild hybrid, but GM also launched last month its Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon 2-mode hybrid fullsize SUVs.

GM will add its 2-mode system to the Cadillac Escalade this spring and make it available on the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra fullsize pickups by the end of the year.

“I’d like to beat (Toyota) on a worldwide basis, but I don’t lose 10 seconds of sleep thinking about it,” says LaNeve, whose focus is North America. “I just want to win here in the U.S., and I hope our dealers do well.”

GM is tracking full-year U.S. sales of 3.8 million vehicles, compared with 2.4 million for Toyota, according to Ward’s data.

Overall, LaNeve says GM’s U.S. retail share will finish the year flat vs. 2006, with shipments to less-profitable rental-fleet customers down by about 100,000 units.

Meanwhile, he says GM expects Malibu demand to outstrip supply until spring when output from a second plant fills the pipeline. GM added the Malibu to the production schedule at its assembly site in Orion Township, MI, in December. The Malibu’s primary manufacturing site in Fairfax, KS, began shipping to dealers in late October.

“We expected (the Malibu) to turn quickly, but it’s more prolific than we thought,” LaNeve says. “It’s selling everywhere – from Southern California to Flint (MI).”

LaNeve compares the Malibu’s tight inventories to those of the Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia CUVs, which have been on the market longer and remain in short supply.

“I hope (dealers) feel short,” he adds. “That’s a good position to be in.”