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Luxury Race

BMW holding off its rivals Add to ...

Ian Robertson, BMW’s head of global sales and marketing, says sales leadership in the world of premium cars is important, though no one at BMW AG is willing to use strong profits to buy market share.

That said, BMW will remain the world’s No. 1 premium auto maker for 2013, though rival Audi is catching up and Mercedes-Benz has publicly said it plans to retain the title of No. 1 this decade. It might seem like a small thing, but winning the title of world’s top-selling luxury auto maker matters a great deal among the big three from Germany. And the competition market-by-market is fierce.

In Canada, at first glance the Mercedes-Benz brand has all but locked up the luxury crown for 2013, based on sales through the end of October reported by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. With only two months left, Mercedes has a lead of nearly 3,000 over BMW – 28,844 for the Mercedes brand versus 26,072 for the BMW brand.

However, it gets more interesting when sales of BMW’s Mini (4,920) and Mercedes’s Smart (1,908) are factored into the equation. DesRosiers shows that BMW/Mini has a slim 200-unit lead over Mercedes/Smart. Moreover, BMW officials point out that Mercedes’ sales include Sprinter commercial vans – which are not premium vehicles at all, not in the traditional sense, at least. In third place is Audi Canada at 17,433 through the end of October.

Audi Canada’s sales are up a modest 2.9 per cent on the year, versus BMW brand sales which are down 2.1 per cent and Mercedes brand sales which are up 6.4 per cent. Globally, Audi says it plans to outpace BMW by 2020 and with sales of 1.46 million last year, Audi has already passed Mercedes-Benz for the No. 2 spot in the world.

Next year is going to be interesting, however. Audi in Canada will start selling the new A3 sedan and Q3 crossover, both of which compete in the heart of the Canadian premium market. BMW, for its part, is looking ahead in 2014 to the arrival of smaller-volume models such as the i3, M3, i8, X4 (possibly) and more of the 4-Series. Mercedes has already launched two high-volume models for Canada, the CLA sedan and the B-Class wagon.

The Mercedes ML SUV is expected to get a freshening, the GLA small SUV is coming and, among other product news, the new C-Class is most important in Canada. The C-Class has traditionally been Mercedes’s best-selling passenger car in Canada and a remake will surely give sales a jolt.

The race among these three is fascinating and fierce. BMW for many years was the market leader in Canada, but Mercedes’s push down-market (with the B-Class and now the CLA) has changed the game. Mercedes has also made some savvy moves with its vehicles in more traditional segments. SUV sales, for instance, have been boosted by an emphasis on diesel technology – with diesels now accounting for about 80 per cent of Mercedes’s SUV sales.

Audi Canada, meanwhile, was given the freedom to operate as a largely separate unit, rather than as a division of Audi’s U.S. operation. That’s helped put more focus on the dealer network and on getting more models suited to Canadian tastes. Globally, Audi has spent the past decade cultivating an image as a feisty and modern alternative luxury brand compared with its more staid, established German rivals. Audi Canada officials have repeatedly said the plan is to become the No. 1 premium brand in Canada by as early as 2018 and no later than 2020 – just like its parent around the world.

The race is on, and even when there is a winner at the end of 2013, the celebration will be short. Everything begins anew for 2014 on Jan. 1.

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