LUDWIG WILLISCH, CEO, BMW OF NORTH AMERICA

Electric drive is key to putting BMW on top in U.S.

Willisch: "Demand for the i3 is very good."
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In five years, BMW will be the biggest luxury brand, be known for its electric mobility and have top-rated customer service, says Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America.

BMW just delivered its first i3 electric vehicle, and the car is in hot demand. BMW will sell every i3 it gets, Willisch said. The i8 plug-in hybrid will appeal to buyers who want a sports car and are environmentally conscious, he said.

Willisch, 57, has been CEO since 2011.

He was interviewed this month at BMW of North America headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., by Staff Reporter Diana T. Kurylko.

Q: For the next several years, will the luxury market outpace the volume market now that U.S. sales are on the rise?

A: What we see is that the premium market is a pretty constant percentage of the total market. Yes, there will be some supply-driven peaks. I would say the premium market is not growing at the pace of 2009. The growth will slow down.

Whom will BMW compete against with the new M high-performance models?

We are not competing against anyone. Those cars are really unique. The M3 and the new M4 have a lightweight structure which makes them lighter than the predecessors; their agility is beyond what we have seen before. They have an inline six-cylinder that goes back to our roots.

As far as fuel consumption or CO2 emissions, which is the same thing, they are setting to a new benchmark -- 200 grams/kilometer (27 mpg) for a car that has 240 hp is fantastic. The predecessor was nearly 300 grams/kilometer (18 mpg).

BMW just delivered the first i3 EV. How is demand, and can you meet it?

Demand for the i3 is very good. I just talked to Jacob Harb, our head of BMW i, and he said California and the western region are asking for more cars. It is the very early days. Everybody, and that includes the dealers, are very enthusiastic about the cars. We are on the verge of doing 30,000 test drives. We know that roughly 90 percent of those people say, "Please contact me. I want to know more about it. I want to talk to a dealer."

The first cars are rolling in, and it will take time until all dealers have cars and demos. It will happen over the summer.

How many i3s will BMW sell this year?

We will sell every car we can get our hands on.

And what about the i8 at $136,625, including shipping? Will BMW sell 500 this year?

It will be low volume, even lower than 500 in the first year. Worldwide production starts in June. It will be a rare but beautiful sight -- and it will be a silent sight. You just hear a little hiss noise, and then the internal combustion engine kicks in, and you have a wonderful sound.

Who will buy the i8, traditional BMW owners or conquests?

We will sell a lot of i3 and i8 cars in the San Francisco Bay area. The i8 appeals to the sports car driver that wants to look forward and see what is next. It has great looks and fantastic roadholding. It has comfort and space. It has back seats so you can take your kids along. In the end, you can drive electrically in town, not quite 30 miles, and go back on the freeway.

Won't BMW be competing with the battery-electric Tesla?

It is a different concept. Tesla is a four-door sedan. We are looking at a car that from A to Z is designed to be an electric car in the sense that we look at the carbon footprint of the car starting with the hydropower that produces the carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. Then we put it together with wind power. The weight of the battery is offset by the light weight of the body.

That is a different story that other manufacturers simply can't tell. Conceptwise, it is something else, and people appreciate that. When you look at the i8, people want the best-looking and -driving car in the world. But there is a growing sense that you want to make a statement of being environmentally conscious.

What about sales of the 5, 6 and 7 series? They are all down through April. Why are they uncompetitive?

We always look at a full-year perspective. Wait until the year ends. The 5 series will do great. We are quite happy with the 6-series Gran Coupe. And we anticipated it would be a great success because the car looks so great.

What about the 7 series? It is starting to look old-fashioned and not as high-tech compared with the offerings from other luxury brands.

I do not agree with that. It is still a very attractive car. We have just added a diesel to the lineup.

Is the age of the 7 series a factor?

Age is always a factor. We always have to deal with competition and the fact that we are in a different phase of the life cycle.

A growing number of BMW's sales are coming from crossovers. Is that where BMW wants to be?

If you compare them to other manufacturers and the competition, if we had more, we could sell more. We have a new addition, the X4, that we will launch this summer. We are enjoying high demand across the world with the X5. We could sell even more.

BMW will offer a larger seven-seat vehicle, the X7, in a few years. To whom will it appeal?

It will be for an X5 customer who wants more space and a BMW. Other than that, I cannot tell you much more. It is a little way out.

BMW is waiting to decide whether to sell the front-wheel-drive 2-series Active Tourer in the United States. Are you waiting for a long-wheelbase model?

No. We do not have enough cars for the world to launch at once. We may as well wait and see how things develop.

Is semiautonomous driving a target for BMW?

We believe that whenever there is a traffic situation that can be boring or cumbersome, like bumper-to-bumper, autonomous driving can be the right thing to do. We believe that all these devices should support the driver. If you are driving the ultimate driving machine, it has to be an active role.

Where will BMW be five years from now in the United States?

We would be the leading premium automotive brand in the United States with a model lineup that caters to customers that are into electro-mobility and those going for the ultimate driving machine. I do see us also ranking at the top in customer satisfaction. I see the BMW brand as continuously being one of the best brands overall in the United States.

How many 3-series GTs is BMW selling a month?

It is doing better than many dealers expected, and it is running according to our expectations. It has space and versatility, it is at the right price point, and the dynamics are what people want.

As a percentage of 3-series sales?

The percentage it is low. Maybe 10 percent.

So why isn't the 5-series GT selling better? It is a similar but larger car than the 3-series GT.

It starts with the size of the vehicle and goes to the price point. It is metrics. One is $40,000, and the other is $10,000 or $15,000 more. The compact segment is better suited for a vehicle like the GT.

You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at dkurylko@crain.com. -- Follow Diana on Twitter


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