GM is also contending with a stronger Volkswagen. It narrowly edged out the fast-growing German company for second place in 2012. VW sold a record 9.1 million vehicles.
Volkswagen, with big sellers like the Passat midsize sedan and Jetta compact, closed in on GM with an 11 percent sales increase across the globe. The United States, where VW brand sales rose 31 percent, led the way.
Schuster expects GM to hold off Volkswagen in 2013. That's because VW has more of a presence in Europe, where sales are falling as the region struggles with high unemployment and weak economies.
GM isn't ignoring the global sales race, but it's more focused on rolling out new products and driving profitable growth, said Mary Barra, the company's global product development chief.
She expects the company to gain sales and market share in the U.S. this year because many new vehicles were rolled out late last year or are coming this year, such as new full-size pickup trucks and the Cadillac ATS small luxury sports sedan. GM plans to revamp 70 percent of its North American models by the end of next year, shifting its model lineup from the oldest in the industry to the newest.
"It all starts and ends with great products," she said. "You get the products right and the other will come with time."