BMW boss: China will pass Japan in sales

German automaker tripled sales in China last year

Singapore. BMW Chairman Helmut Panke said he believes China will pass Japan as Asia's No. 1 market in the next three years. "We don't expect the Chinese bubble to burst within the next five to eight years," Panke said at the presentation of his Asia strategy in Singapore.

The German automaker's sales in China nearly tripled to 18,679 vehicles last year. More than 16 percent of those units where built in the country by BMW Brilliance Auto Ltd., the German automaker's joint venture with Brilliance China Automotive Holdings Ltd.

While the world's fastest growing auto market is booming, Panke said he doesn't think China can sustain the 100-plus Chinese automobile manufacturers because mass-market car buyers want "a lot of car for little money" and will purchase from any brand that meets that criteria.

But he predicts fast and reliable growth of the premium segment, where BMW's most expensive model -- the 12-cylinder 7 series -- is the German brand's top seller.

"To us the Chinese market seems like a pyramid that has been turned upside down," Panke said. In all other countries BMW sells more 3 series models than 5 series and more 5 series than 7 series models, which costs 203,000 euros in China.

BMW also is doing well in Japan, selling 45,275 units there, an increase of 7.5 percent.

The German carmaker aims to increase its dealer network in Japan to 55 from 24 by 2005.

Panke is proud of the way BMW has developed in Asia.

"We started earlier and had a clearer strategy," Panke said, hinting at premium segment competitor Mercedes-Benz. BMW beat Mercedes in unit sales in Asia for the first time, 78,754 units to 76,578. The BMW boss does not consider Audi, which sold 80,218 vehicles in Asia, a serious competitor.

BMW Asia boss Lÿder Paysen was a little more direct: "We dictate the direction in Asia," he said, "and the others try to keep up with us."

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