BMW claims 4th luxury crown in 5 years; Lexus tops Mercedes

BMW edged Lexus and Mercedes for the U.S. luxury sales crown in 2015. Photo credit: DAVID PHILLIPS

BMW held on in December to top the U.S. luxury segment in 2015 for its fourth luxury-sales crown in five years. But Lexus rode a strong December to pass Mercedes-Benz for second place.

The race was tight until the end. BMW finished 2015 with luxury sales of 346,023 vehicles, followed by Lexus with 344,601 and Mercedes with 343,088. All three brands set annual sales records last year.

Though BMW retained the sales title, its results tumbled sharply in December, sliding 17 percent from a year earlier to 34,625. For the year, the brand’s sales rose 1.8 percent.

“The new sales record in 2015 is the third record year in a row for BMW with the numbers further emphasizing the growth of luxury trucks, which are now one-third of BMW sales in the U.S.,” Ludwig Willisch, CEO of BMW of North America, said in a press release.

Best Lexus month

Lexus chief Jeff Bracken said December marked the all-time best month for the brand. Lexus widely outpaced its rivals in December with a 3.8 percent sales gain to 41,380. The brand’s 2015 sales rose 11 percent. Bracken, Lexus general manager, described 2015 as producing sales “we couldn’t have predicted.”

In a press release, he added, “Lexus’ SUV sales momentum and the strength of our product lineup has us well positioned for 2016.”

For Mercedes, it was a sluggish end to the year, despite record annual sales. The brand’s luxury sales were nearly flat in December, edging up 0.6 percent to 34,203. That followed a 13 percent decline in November. The Mercedes luxury numbers exclude sales of the Sprinter commercial van.

‘Great year’

In a statement, Dietmar Exler, new CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, called it a “great year” with strong momentum from the recent launches of the brand’s GLE and GLC crossovers.

Exler, former U.S. head of sales for the brand, took over the top spot at Mercedes-Benz USA on Jan. 1 following the December departure of former CEO Steve Cannon.

Before his departure, Cannon said that the brand’s November slide was explained by a shortage of inventory in the hot compact crossover segment after the redesigned and renamed GLC went on sale later than expected. Cannon left Mercedes to head the company that owns the Atlanta Falcons NFL team.

Segment strength

With the exception of Jaguar, all luxury brands experienced gains in 2015. The luxury segment as a whole grew substantially, with U.S. sales rising 7.7 percent in 2015 to top 2 million vehicles for the first time, at 2.03 million.

Total U.S. light-vehicle sales rose 5.7 percent.

While Jaguar sales slid 8.3 percent in 2015, its stablemate, Land Rover, had sales surge 37 percent, leaving combined Jaguar Land Rover sales up 26 percent at 85,048.

December began with BMW leading the luxury segment with 11-month sales of 311,398, followed by Mercedes-Benz with 308,885 and Lexus with 303,221. Lexus almost caught up to BMW during the month, coming close to regaining the luxury title it had held for 11 straight years, until the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami disrupted its sales.

BMW previously won the U.S. luxury-sales crown in 2011, 2012 and 2014. Mercedes-Benz took it in 2013.

Crossovers and light trucks boosted U.S. volume at Lexus by 11 percent to 344,601 vehicles in 2015, good enough for No. 2 among luxury brands. Photo credit: DAVID PHILLIPS

Cadillac, Infiniti gains

In December, Cadillac sales rose 29 percent, to 20,787, propelled by a 44 percent increase for the SRX midsize crossover, the brand’s top seller. Cadillac is in sell-down mode on the outgoing SRX to make way for its successor, the XT5, a new vehicle that will roll out this spring.

The sales surge pushed Cadillac to a 2.6 percent increase for 2015, to 175,267, surpassing brand chief Johan de Nysschen’s goal of maintaining flat sales as he orchestrates the early phases of a turnaround plan.

Infiniti has lagged in the luxury trend, due mostly to a lack of exciting products. The brand is finally joining the party. Infiniti sales jumped 26 percent in December and 14 percent for the year.

Porsche set a U.S. sales record in 2015 with 51,756 deliveries, an increase of 10 percent over 2014. Photo credit: DAVID PHILLIPS

Crossover timing

A key issue until now has been its lack of a compact crossover. But Infiniti a few months ago introduced a QX50 compact crossover that has been re-engineered with a longer wheelbase. The change makes its cramped crossover viable for the first time. The outgoing vehicle, sold as the EX, had been a nonperformer. But in December, QX50 sales soared more than sixfold to 1,453. In 2015, the vehicle’s sales doubled from 2014, with just a couple of months of availability.

“The QX50 has come to the market at the right time,” said Randy Parker, vice president of Infiniti Americas. “That’s the fastest growing segment of premium space, and it’s resonating with consumers.

“When you get the right product with the right price point to the market at the right time, you can produce magic.”

Mike Colias and Lindsay Chappell contributed to this report.

You can reach Amy Wilson at -- Follow Amy on Twitter: @theamywilson

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