Mercedes Tops BMW in ’12 Vehicle Registrations, Polk Says

Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz had more U.S. new-vehicle registrations than Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW in 2012, giving the German automakers one more point of disagreement over which is the leading seller of luxury vehicles.

U.S. buyers registered 272,674 Mercedes vehicles last year, compared with BMW’s 267,649, according to researcher R.L. Polk & Co., which tracks state by state records. BMW on Jan. 3 reported a December surge, boosting its U.S. sales to 281,460 for last year, ahead of Mercedes’s total of 274,134.

The two German automakers are vying to be the top luxury-auto brand in the U.S. after outselling Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus the past two years. BMW vaulted to its second consecutive U.S. luxury crown in 2012. Lexus was the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. for 11 years until natural disasters in Asia curtailed production in 2011.

The discrepancy between registrations and sales is because cars can be reported as sold when delivered to dealerships instead of only to consumers, Tom Libby, lead North American analyst for Southfield, Michigan-based Polk, said in an interview yesterday. Annual registration data lag sales data by about 40 days, he said.

“There’s demo usage and service loaner usage,” Libby said. “BMW just did that to a greater extent than Mercedes. These two brands are very competitive.”

‘Solid’ Numbers

BMW said it’s still No. 1.

“The BMW sales numbers are solid,” Kenn Sparks, a BMW spokesman, said in an e-mail yesterday. “State-provided registration data, as reported by Polk, can lag 60 or even 90 days after an especially strong sales month. Throw in a holiday and the delay is inevitable. That’s what is playing out here.”

Last month, in an interview on Bloomberg Television, Steve Cannon, chief executive officer of Mercedes’s U.S. sales unit, suggested BMW fudged its sales results, giving it the 2012 luxury crown in the U.S., based on reported deliveries.

“The purer message is Mercedes-Benz registered” more vehicles than BMW last year, Cannon said in an interview yesterday. “That’s also a victory story. But it’s like the tree that falls in the woods. Does anyone hear it?”

The sales and registration results don’t include Daimler’s cargo vans and Smart cars and BMW’s Mini brand, which aren’t luxury vehicles.

The luxury sales crown matters mostly to luxury-auto makers and the media, Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence at TrueCar Inc., said in an interview. The title is meaningless for consumers, he said.

“A consumer buying a luxury car wants a vehicle that is more exclusive,” Toprak said. “So the argument of being the No. 1 automaker in luxury may actually be counterproductive.”

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