Less than 24 hours after Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney attempted to out-wait each other — and the results — before Romney was designated winner of the GOP Iowa caucuses by a razor-thin margin, BMW and Mercedes-Benz played their own waiting game on Wednesday, delaying the announcement of their 2011 sales figures in a stand-off to see which one could claim the U.S. luxury sales crown.
Which brand sold more vehicles in the U.S. market during 2011 and therefore claimed, for the first time, a segment sales crown that Lexus had owned for more than a decade? BMW entered December more than 1,000 units ahead of Mercedes-Benz, but the latter had closed a bigger gap during November with a furious surge of sales promotions and incentives. Auto industry observers are projecting that BMW will take the luxury sales crown for 2011 until the companies release the actual figures.
The rest of the industry closed out 2011 in relatively fine fashion, riding a surge of stronger U.S. sales that slowly built beginning in the third quarter and allowed the auto business to turn about 13 million sales for the year. That was up about 10 percent from a year earlier.
Considering all that the brands had to fight through during the year — including $4-a-gallon gasoline, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan and floods in Thailand, and consumers made queasy by global fiscal turmoil from Brussels to Washington, D.C. — brand executives were pleased with that performance.
"Sales are up now over 20 percent over the two years," noted Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, Ford's chief economist, on a conference call with reporters and analysts. "We're ready to support a good sales pace in the months ahead."
Most OEM executives forecasted another gain of roughly 5 percent to 10 percent in U.S. sales for this year to as high as 14 million units or more, recognizing both the slowly building economic recovery, and the potential for what Hughes-Cromwick called major "business uncertainties" to materialize as they did so readily last year.
One leading global auto-market intelligence firm, R.L. Polk, is looking for about a 7-percent sales increase for the U.S. market, to about 13.7 million vehicles this year.
Biggest-winning brands in 2011 clearly included not only BMW and Mercedes-Benz but also Ford, which increased U.S. market share for its Ford brand by more than three percentage points, the best since 1970; Chevrolet, which picked up 9 percent in total sales over 2010 on the strength of sales of small vehicles, especially Cruze; Chrysler, whose 37-percent year-on-year jump in December sales easily topped the industry; Hyundai, whose record sales were up 20 percent over 2010; and Volkswagen.
"VW continues our pattern of outpacing the industry," Volkswagen of America CEO Jonathan Browning told reporters. Its new Passat sedan sold 124 percent more units in late 2011 alone, for instance, than the previous version had for all of 2010.
For 2012, Honda and Toyota are expected to make full or nearly complete volume recoveries from their disastrous 2011 campaigns. The biggest question for those brands might be whether they can match their previous shares of the market. And even Volvo, the only remaining mainstream brand with Swedish roots now that Saab is dead, is predicting a 25-percent increase in U.S sales this year.
Polk expects luxury sales to grow the fastest of any segment in the U.S. this year. That means the luxury "championship belt" that BMW and Mercedes battled for last year might become even more valuable for 2012.