CHRISTIAAN HETZNER

BMW, Mercedes win with diesels in Korea

BMW opened a driving center in South Korea in 2014.
Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's Germany correspondent.
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It's only been a couple of weeks since the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang concluded, but for two of Germany's major premium brands the hunt for gold in South Korea continues. BMW's and Mercedes-Benz's sales are booming and, unlike Europe, diesels have been a major driver of the success.

Models such as the BMW 520d or Mercedes-Benz E 220d routinely rank as the best-selling imports.

Typically, when experts talk about strategically important car markets, the Korean peninsula doesn't come up. Instead the focus lies mainly on the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

While China has become the single-biggest market for Mercedes, BMW and Audi, the other three have failed to live up to their potential. Instead, a market of only 1.53 million light vehicles has stepped into the vacuum. Sales of Mercedes cars in South Korea increased by 20 percent last year. Remarkably, that represents a slowdown over 2016, when volumes surged by a third.

Some of the growth can be attributed to a 2011 free trade agreement with South Korea that first reduced the 8 percent tariff on cars imported from the EU before eventually eliminating it entirely. Executives say what is even more important has been a change in attitude. A rising number of consumers are eschewing brands controlled by large family-owned conglomerates known as the chaebol, including Hyundai, in favor of foreign makes.

Several such groups have become embroiled in scandals where the government helped keep chaebol executives found guilty of bribery and corruption out of jail. Now it's no longer considered your patriotic duty to help the domestic brands, especially if you can afford better.

"There's a new spending paradigm called YOLO: You Only Live Once," said IHS Markit senior analyst Andy Bae. "Thanks to supportive financial and promotion programs, YOLO consumers do not hesitate to purchase premium cars from Mercedes and BMW."

Mercedes now counts South Korea as its sixth-largest market worldwide, only narrowly trailing France with nearly 69,000 cars sold last year. BMW wasn't far behind with a little less than 60,000. South Korea even eclipsed Japan last year as BMW brand's second-biggest market in Asia.

"There's a strong relationship between South Korea and Germany, and they are attracted by German products, so we could utilize that," Mercedes global sales boss Britta Seeger told journalists in Los Angeles last November.

Seeger might be the best example of the growing importance of understanding South Korea. Prior to her promotion to the board of Mercedes parent Daimler, her first major assignment was running the automaker's national sales company in South Korea from 2013 to 2015. Her unique experience there is also influencing what decisions she makes now. As part of her goal to open up the brand to new audiences, not just customers, Seeger decided that Mercedes should sponsor eSports competitive video gaming. "It may not be considered a mainstream sport, but it's the fastest growing sport in the world," said Seeger, who was attracted by sold-out stadiums around the globe and almost 500 million streaming hours watched per month. "I lived in South Korea. There it's very normal -- like soccer."

So, it's that much more painful that smaller premium brand Audi has effectively been frozen out of this lucrative market after regulators decertified thousands of its diesels and imposed a ban on new registrations in August 2016 because of parent Volkswagen Group's emissions-cheating scandal. This caused volumes to plummet from a peak of 32,538 in 2015 to less than 1,000 in 2017, crippling its dealer network.

"Korean customers migrated from Audi to BMW and Mercedes during the sales ban," IHS Markit's Bae explained. "VW (Group) is preparing to start sales again." Perhaps Audi will be able to benefit from what remains of the Olympic spirit.

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You can reach Christiaan Hetzner at christiaan.hetzner@gmail.com.

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