Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz said it held back final 2011 U.S. sales results last week because the luxury brand suspected rival BMW would adjust its own number to overtake them as No. 1.
Bayerische Motoren Werke AG denied the accusation while taking a swipe at Mercedes’s incentive spending as the race to replace Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus brand as the top-selling luxury brand entered its final weeks last year.
BMW outsold Mercedes by 2,715 vehicles in 2011 in the U.S., ending Lexus’s 11-year run as the annual luxury sales leader. Mercedes and BMW both waited until Jan. 5 to release results, a day after other automakers announced figures. Ultimately, Mercedes announced its results about two hours before BMW did.
“What we were thinking that they were going to do was just wait for a number then punch exactly the amount of cars that they needed in order to beat us,” Steve Cannon, head of Mercedes’s U.S. unit, said in an interview yesterday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “At the end of the day, silly stuff.”
Ludwig Willisch, chief executive officer of BMW of North America, denied the accusation in a separate interview. “We didn’t change our numbers,” he said.
Both expect the fight for luxury supremacy to continue this year. Mercedes forecasts its U.S. sales to rise at least 10 percent in 2012, aided by the refreshed C-Class, Cannon said.
BMW predicts its U.S. sales will rise as well, helped by the introduction of a redesigned 3-Series compact sedan, Willisch said. While he declined to say how much sales would increase, Willisch said BMW would remain No. 1 in the U.S.
Deliveries of the 3-Series fell 6.5 percent to 94,371 last year as the company wound down sales of the old model.
Sales of Munich-based BMW’s vehicles rose 13 percent to 247,907 last year, boosted by the redesigned X3 sport-utility vehicle, while Lexus sales fell 13 percent to 198,552.
Mercedes narrowed the gap with BMW toward the end of the year, helped by a refreshed C-Class compact sedan and new coupe. Stuttgart, Germany-based Mercedes saw sales rise 13 percent to 245,192 in the U.S.
“Obviously, they were trying to get close to us,” Willisch said of Mercedes. BMW “is not in the business of distributing cars but selling cars for a profit. We were kind of wondering what was going on in November.”
The results exclude Daimler’s Sprinter and Freightliner vans, Smart cars and BMW’s Mini brand vehicles, which aren’t luxury models. The 2011 full-year figures also exclude sales of Daimler’s Maybach brand.
The fight for No. 1 in luxury cars is a balancing act, Rebecca Lindland, a Norwalk, Connecticut-based analyst at IHS Automotive, said in an e-mail.
“I struggle with this because there’s always the balance between being No. 1 versus becoming ubiquitous and hence losing cachet,” she said.
BMW and Mercedes will face increased competition from other automakers. General Motors Co.’s Cadillac introduced its new ATS compact sedan on Jan. 8, seeking entry-level luxury buyers who now purchase the 3-Series and C-Class.
Mark Templin, head of U.S. Lexus sales, said last week that the brand will grow about 20 percent this year with new products.