European imports had their best U.S. sales in a decade in 1998, but new sport-utilities will boost European sales even higher in the next few years.
Mercedes and BMW brands both set U.S. sales records last year, beating records that were set only a year earlier. Mercedes sales jumped 39.2 percent to 170,245 in 1998, thanks to the M class, and Mercedes could reach roughly 200,000 in 1999.
BMW, which also owns Land Rover, will follow suit with the BMW X5 sport-utility in November 1999.
That could boost sales to nearly 200,000 for BMW of North America Inc. in 2000, vs. 131,559 in 1998.
Porsche also will add a sport-utility, in 2002. Wendelin Wiedeking, Porsche AG CEO, said Porsche expects to build some 20,000 a year in a joint venture with Volkswagen AG. That represents about 50 percent of Porsche's present annual worldwide volume.
'Our targets are not so low,' Wiedeking said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week. Porsche's U.S. sales gained 35.4 percent to 17,243 in 1998.
With everyone else getting on the truck bandwagon, Land Rover North America Inc. was an exception to the rule in 1998. Its sales fell 10.1 percent. CEO Charlie Hughes said Land Rover missed the discontinued Defender 90 model. Some buyers probably also waited for the redesigned Discovery Series II, which went on sale in December.
'We're in a transition period, certainly,' Hughes said.
Volvo gained 11.3 percent in 1998; Saab, 8.1 percent; Jaguar, 15.4 percent.
In 1998, the Volkswagen brand had its best year since 1981; Audi enjoyed its best year since 1986.
'I feel a little like I stole the bride in America,' said Audi's Len Hunt. Hunt succeeded Gerd Klauss as vice president in charge of U.S. operations effective Jan. 1 - just in time for Hunt to announce the big sales increase.