BMW Bumps Mercedes, Lexus To Become America's Top Luxury Brand

January 6, 2012

For a full decade, Lexus has been parked at the top of the U.S. luxury car heap, but no more. Sales stats released this week have put a different brand in the top spot, and that brand is BMW.

The Wall Street Journal reports that BMW and rival automaker Mercedes-Benz both delayed sharing sales figures for December 2011. While most brands released those numbers on Wednesday, BMW and Mercedes held their stats for an extra day. Both knew that they were contenders for the top luxury spot in the U.S., and each wanted the other to announce figures first, in hopes of following up that announcement with a triumphant "We're #1" press release.

It was a very close race -- not as close as Romney and Santorum in Iowa, but still neck-and-neck. In the end, BMW sold 247,907 luxury vehicles over the course of the 2011, while Mercedes sold a couple thousand less, ringing in at a very respectable 245,231. (The race was closer back in May, when the two were separated by just 29 sales.) Both companies' year-end figures represent double-digit increases over 2010.

And Lexus? Lexus came in much further down the chart, at 198,552, more than 13% below 2010.

What happened?

In the history books, 2011 will go down as a pretty bad one for Japanese automakers. The March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami left much of that country crippled for weeks and resulted in vehicle shortages in many markets, including the U.S. The flooding in Thailand that took place during the second half of the year didn't help matters. 

But what may have hurt Lexus the most is its lineup. True, Lexus has consistently scored well in quality and customer experience, but even some of its recently refreshed models like the Lexus LS look dated against the sleeker, more contemporary designs of competitors. The CT 200h gets some credit for shaking things up a bit, despite the clunky "Darker Side of Green" campaign that launched it.

Of course, that's not to say that BMW and Mercedes had no hand in their strong sales. Both offer a range of exciting vehicles at a time when luxury consumers are heading back to showrooms. And those offerings will likely expand as Mercedes launches the intro-level A class and BMW continues showing off glimpses of the stunning 2014 i8.

Will Lexus rebound as Japan continues its recovery? We're not prone to offer psychic predictions -- well, not often -- but we're happy to give you our take on the brand's latest offerings from the floor of the 2012 Detroit Auto Show next week. 

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