TOYOTA is the most impatient of car manufacturers. It simply is not satisfied with second best. That's why it constantly redefines its targets and sets new standards by which it will measure success.

The most recent target must have sent a chill down the spine of Rick Wagoner, chief executive of General Motors.

By 2007, Toyota estimates it will be building - and selling - 9.2 million cars a year. That will be enough to take it above GM and into the coveted number one spot for the first time. GM hopes to be making 9.12 million cars in two years' time.

By common consent, Wagoner has the toughest job in the car industry - keeping an ageing champ on top.

He must have grown tired of the number of times journalists have asked when GM will seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In fact, if he had a dollar for every time the question has been asked, GM probably wouldn't be in the dire financial situation that it is.

At 52, the man from Delaware doesn't need all this.

Still, Wagoner believes he has a way to save GM from the ignominy of Chapter 11.

On paper, it looks simple - launch cars people want to buy, make them more cheaply to maximise profit and therefore dig GM out from beneath the employee liabilities (principally its pensions debt) that newer car companies don't have.

Critics claim GM has been caught napping - that it grew lazy on sales of 4x4s and pick-ups in the US and treated European buyers with contempt by building cars that were merely mediocre in a market where customers demand more.

And despite a liaison with Daewoo, the GM group has yet to really crack the rapidly-growing Asian market.

The group lost a whopping £4bn in the first nine months of this year. Put another way, that equates to a loss of £600 on every car sold.

An even bigger headache is the cost of meeting the medical costs of retired workers - the legacy of a decision made half-a-century ago. Although GM has a global workforce of 400,000 people, it has to meet the medical bills of more than a million others who once worked on the production line.

As Wagoner told Autocar magazine recently: "If we don't fix healthcare, we can't fix the US business."

There are some positive signs, though.

After months of tough negotiations the group has finally reached an agreement with the powerful United Auto Workers union to cut retiree legacy spending by 20 per cent.

Wagoner also plans to give GM's finance operation more autonomy to borrow at lower rates and offer car buyers a more attractive finance package if they choose a GM car.

The re-branding of Daewoo to Chevrolet also seems to be paying dividends. Sales have climbed from 300,000 to more than a million.

Vauxhall and Opel also appear to be making headway. The Astra has been a conspicuous success and looks likely to steal sales from the new Ford Focus, a model criticised for its lacklustre styling - ironically, that is exactly the problem that dogged the previous generation Astras. The Vectra has also been repackaged to make it better looking and more fun to drive.

A new Corsa arrives next year and GM hopes to sell 200,000 more than the present generation hatchback, which is badly off the pace set by its rivals.

Things are less certain at Saab, where a hurried liaison with Subaru has been ditched before a smaller Saab could reach the showrooms. Attention is now focused on the 9-5 replacement due in 2008. If it works, GM may yet turn the Swedish marque into a genuine luxury car brand. If it fails, then it is difficult to see Saab carrying on with only two models. In the US, GM is rushing new 4x4s and pick-ups to market - these machines make serious profits. The huge Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban can't arrive soon enough.

Encouragingly, the one area Wagoner has not picked on for cost savings is research and development.

It takes guts to keep on spending when your company is losing billions, but the boss knows that in the car business, if you stand still you fall behind.

Which is why GM is spending serious money researching hybrid powerplants.

Unfortunately for Wagoner, the acknowledged world leader in such technology is - you guessed it - Toyota.