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After an “Unusual” Delay, BMW Claims Luxury Sales Crown

Lexus tumbles for first time in a decade.

by on Jan.05, 2012

BMW delivers the winning numbers in the race for the U.S. luxury sales crown.

While there doesn’t seem to be a problem with hanging chads, a recount may still be possible as the winner prepares to take the crown as U.S. luxury sales leader for 2011.

Barring a Supreme Court intervention, it appears that BMW will take its place as king-of-the-hill having best its German arch-rival Mercedes-Benz by less than 3,000 units.

Having been tumbled from its lofty peak by, among other things, production cuts following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, last March, former luxury champ Lexus is nonetheless vowing to get back on its feet and give chase again for 2012.

Trust Our Numbers!

Curiously, both BMW and Mercedes waited an extra day after the rest of the industry reported sales on Wednesday, leading some to speculate whether they were playing a corporate game of chicken.  Mercedes finally gave in and rolled out its numbers on Thursday morning, with BMW announcing it had bested its rival a couple hours later.

“This is unusual,” said analyst Jesse Toprak, adding he didn’t recall such a delay in years past.

The Bavarian maker says it sold 247,907 vehicles in the U.S. last year, a 12.6% jump from the 220,113 it sold in 2010.  It’s final numbers were buoyed by a 15.3% surge in December, to 26,834.

Mercedes rang up an even bigger Christmas bonanza, sales jumping 28%, to 27,943.  But for the year overall it fell short, at 245,192.

Some industry watchers are privately clucking their tongues and questioning what it took for both makers to get there.  As noted several months ago, Mercedes at one point asked dealers to each roll a number of vehicles into their test fleets which allowed them to be counted as “sold” units.  They were to be moved into used car inventory a day later, with dealers getting hefty bonuses – and buyers promised like-new warranties.

Industry experts caution that Mercedes is by no means the only one to take such steps and suggest many makers have bent, or at least nudged, the rules when a victory seemed possible.  Years ago, Cadillac had to retract its claim of sales leadership after evidence surface it had fudged its numbers.

It’s been a long time since Cadillac – or anyone else, for that matter, had a real shot at dethroning Lexus, which spent a decade as America’s top luxury brand.  But the Toyota brand was hard hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which curbed production through well into autumn.  In the end, Lexus reported selling just 198,552 cars, trucks and crossovers, a 13.7% year-over-year decline.

But like its parent, it plans to ramp up production aggressively in 2012 and is counting on new products, notably including the all-new GS series, to help it regain momentum.

Whether it will be able to claw back up the hill remains to be seen and it will have to fight Mercedes, as well as BMW, along the way.

Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.

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