BMW has grown from a small, relatively unknown German brand with four models to the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. market for the past two years.
BMW of North America marked its 40th anniversary last year, and the BMW brand recorded sales of 346,023 vehicles -- a significant jump from the 19,419 cars it sold in 1975.
The brand's secret ingredient -- running for decades throughout its product lineup -- has been its upscale, European take on driving performance.
Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, says that the U.S. has been critical in BMW global sales and in influencing the brand's characteristics.
"The U.S. has always been important in shaping the brand," Willisch said. "It is a big influence on our decision-making process -- it is the second biggest single market now.
"When it comes to driving dynamics, it is the market for brand-shaping and decision-making."
BMW launched the tag line "The Ultimate Driving Machine" in 1975 and says it's more than a marketing slogan -- it describes the kind of performance the brand seeks from every vehicle, even its crossovers.
And the brand takes care of its customers, says one influential retailer.
"They have contemporary design; they have brought connectivity into the vehicles -- and luxury," said Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation. "They are very customer-friendly in free maintenance, which BMW customers just love -- they do not have this concern."
Jackson adds that the 3-series sedan -- the brand's biggest seller in the United States -- is "the foundation that epitomizes BMW."
Experts and dealers attribute BMW's rise from obscurity to its laser focus on performance.
"It has been consistent in product execution. There has been criticism on specific models or generations, but it is still The Ultimate Driving Machine," said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Automotive in Michigan. "They expanded into new areas, and they picked up SUVs and crossovers at the right time."
Bob Lutz, a board member in the early 1970s who later became vice chairman of General Motors, says a key to BMW's success is that "they have very carefully nurtured their brand."
"They never strayed off the course of being a driver's car. They have up to now been very true to their ethic and never tried to please everyone."
A bitter lawsuit
BMW of North America was launched as a company-owned subsidiary in 1975 when it purchased distribution rights from Max Hoffman, who brought European nameplates to the United States before the brands were interested in the market.