Toyota Motor Corp. retained its title as the world’s biggest car seller last year, topping General Motors Co. and third place Volkswagen Group, but the gap is narrowing.

Toyota on Thursday said it sold a record 9.98 million vehicles, up 2.4% from the prior year. The Japanese automaker expects sales to rise to about 10.3 million this year.

GM sold 9.71 million vehicles last year, about a 4% gain over the prior year.  Volkswagen was just behind at 9.7 million vehicles, representing a 5% gain.

Although it is second, GM is gaining on Toyota.  It trailed the Japanese automaker by about 450,000 vehicles in 2012, but that fell to about 270,000 vehicles last year. 

Meanwhile, Volkswagen, which has set ambitious sales goals for the U.S. and elsewhere, trails GM by about 100,000 cars. A rebound in the European economy could push the German automaker into second place this year.

China was the largest and fastest growing auto market last year.  Sales grew 14.2% to nearly 22 million. The U.S. was second with sales of 15.6 million, a 7.6% gain. Western Europe was the third largest market -- 12.9 million vehicles sold -- but sales dipped 1.9%

Sales declined slightly last year across the globe with the Eastern European, Japanese and South Korean markets all falling 0.3% to 0.9%.

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