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Penske predictable? Nope! Bring on affordable luxury, U.S. brands

Roger Penske likes inexpensive luxury cars and U.S. brands.

That's interesting and a surprise.

Consider that Penske Automotive Group Inc.'s fourth-quarter brand mix was 70 percent premium luxury brands (think BMW), 26 percent volume foreign brands (think Nissan) and a mere 4 percent domestic brands (think Chevrolet).

But the CEO of one of the nation's largest dealership groups dropped two little bombs on analysts and reporters Wednesday during a conference call to discuss the company's fourth-quarter and 2012 financial results.

First, he is shopping for more U.S. brand dealerships to add to his portfolio. That's a big deal. It's a direct endorsement of the Detroit 3 from an influential industry leader.

An analyst also wondered what Penske thinks about premium luxury automakers offering vehicles starting around $30,000 -- that unofficial threshold the industry uses to separate affluent car shoppers from the masses.

The question was likely inspired by Mercedes-Benz's Super Bowl commercial for its newest and smallest car -- the coupe-styled CLA. The CLA will start at $29,900.

"We love it," Penske replied. "It gives us a broader product base to offer the customers. We're attracting new customers."

Other luxury vehicles close to that price point include the 2013 Audi A3 at $28,165 and the 2013 Acura ILX sedan at $26,795, to name a few examples. Those prices include destination fees, which have not been announced for the CLA.

"We see [the low starting price] as a positive," Penske added.

Then the unpredictable Penske shifted to the predictable, community-minded businessman he is, adding: "And the good news" is that the premium luxury automakers "are building plants in the U.S., where they can be competitive."

Brands with cachet at lower prices spurring more sales and creating U.S. jobs: It all makes sense.

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