NEW YORK – BMW AG, poised to become the best-selling luxury brand in the U.S. this year, believes it can keep the lead in 2012's first quarter, as it introduces its redesigned 3-series sedan.
"We have a window to stay No. 1 in the first quarter," Ludwig Willisch, who took over BMW's North American operations, said in an interview in New York. "Our model lineup is broad. We have a lot of opportunities to get there."
BMW and Mercedes have been fighting to take the luxury sales crown away from Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus, which has been the annual leader for 11 years. BMW ended September in the lead with 177,679 sales while Mercedes is in second place with 170,058. Those results exclude Daimler's Sprinter vans and Smart cars and BMW's Mini brand, which aren't luxury vehicles.
Willisch's remarks run counter to his predecessor, Jim O'Donnell, who said in an August interview that BMW will probably be outsold by Mercedes-Benz early next year, before the redesigned 3 series hits U.S. dealerships. Updated Mercedes C-class models went on sale last quarter while BMW is still selling older 3-series compacts.
The 3 series is slated to hit U.S. showrooms in March or April, BMW says. "In the first quarter of next year, I would say Mercedes" will be No. 1, O'Donnell said in August. "Mercedes going into 2012 in the first quarter will be in a strong position. Over the course of the year, we still should be ahead of Mercedes."
BMW isn't conceding 2012's first quarter, Willisch said. "We're not going to ask our customers to buy another brand," he said in an interview at BMW's dealership in Manhattan.
Lexus, in third place, saw sales fall 16 percent this year to 135,647, hindered by a lack of inventory after the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan reduced output of vehicles and parts.
BMW's sales success over the past year has been driven by the redesigned 5-series sedan and X3 SUV.
The automaker's 3 series relies on leasing, and sales are slowing as it nears the end of its product cycle as customers seek the newest luxury models, said Jesse Toprak, an industry analyst with TrueCar.com, a Santa Monica, California-based Web site that tracks auto sales. "From the product-lifecycle perspective in terms of leases, it's a little long-in-tooth," he said.
U.S. sales of the 3-series sedan, coupe, convertible and wagon fell 3.9 percent this year through September compared with last year, according to researcher Autodata Corp. The compact line accounts for more than half of the brand's U.S. car deliveries.
In the first nine months, BMW sold 1.02 million cars globally, a rise of 14.5 percent over 2010 figures.
Audi, which aims to overtake BMW as the most successful luxury automaker by 2015, saw its sales rise 17.4 percent to 973,200 units in the same period. Sales of the Mercedes brand have reached 919,288 units since January, a rise of 7.6 percent.