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Toyota, Ford duel for No. 1 sales hat

– For the second time in seven months, Toyota and Ford both claim to produce the world’s top-selling car. The clash shows how counting in the global automotive industry is complicated.

Ford said Tuesday its Focus compact car was the leading global nameplate, with 1.02 million sales last year, citing R.L. Polk & Co. data that pegged Toyota’s Corolla deliveries at 872,774. Toyota replied with a statement that said it sold 1.16 million Corollas.

Determining which company is correct isn’t clear-cut. The dispute followed a similar spat in August, when Ford claimed a six-month global sales lead for Focus and cited IHS Automotive data that excluded some derivatives of the Corolla such as Matrix in the U.S., the Auris in Europe and the Verso in Japan.

Analysts also calculate global sales differently on the basis of autos sold by joint-venture partners.

“There’s no simple answer here – it’s basically for bragging rights, so you define it however you like to suit your purposes,” said Alan Baum, principal of Baum & Associates, an auto consulting firm in West Bloomfield, Mich. “Suffice it to say these are both global models that are extremely popular and whose sales are likely to grow as the volumes in developing countries increase.”

The differing tallies emerged as Ford and Detroit-based General Motors revamp their U.S. car offerings to win sales in segments dominated for decades by Toyota and Tokyo-based Honda.

Fusion, Ford’s midsize sedan that was redesigned last year, is gaining ground on Toyota’s Camry, the top-selling U.S. car for 11 consecutive years. Camry held a lead over Fusion of 100,830 to 80,558 after the first quarter.

Erich Merkle, Ford’s U.S. sales analyst, reiterated that Focus was the “best-selling nameplate.” The 1.02 million figure “is a pure number that is verified by a third party,” Merkle said.

Polk is unable to provide data on global sales by nameplate beyond what Ford has released, said Michelle Culver, a Polk spokeswoman who works for Lambert, Edwards & Associates. The Southfield, Mich.-based company’s global reporting typically lags by three to four months because it tracks more than 80 markets worldwide.

“Toyota sold 1.16 million Corolla nameplate vehicles globally in 2012,” said Mike Michels, the carmaker’s U.S. vice president of communications. “Corolla registrations attributed to Polk come up short by nearly 300,000 units. This discrepancy is glaring, and we have requested clarification.”

Ford’s F-Series pickup line was the No. 3 nameplate globally last year, behind Focus and Corolla, and Ford’s Fiesta subcompact was No. 6, according to the Polk data released by Ford. GM’s Chevrolet Cruze small car was No. 8, ahead of Honda’s Civic compact.