FRANKFURT -- BMW said on Wednesday it sold nearly 7 percent fewer BMW brand cars last month than a year earlier as buyers stayed away from its key 5-series saloon ahead of a replacement due in July.
BMW sold 88,450 BMW cars in March, 6.7 percent fewer than a year ago, although the continued popularity of its iconic Mini hatchback meant group sales slipped just 1 percent to 106,950 units.
Sliding sales of the 5-series saloon, a major profit driver, combined with a blip in sales of the smaller 3-series as updated coupe and convertible variants hit the market in March, were behind the BMW brand weakness.
The figures put BMW behind key rival Mercedes, the luxury unit of DaimlerChrysler, which said last week it had sold 102,400 Mercedes-Benz cars in March, only a marginal drop from the previous year with weak home demand taking the shine off stronger U.S. sales.
BMW group sales in the first three months of the year were up 0.5 percent at 261,570 units, buoyed by the Mini, while brand sales were down 7.3 percent at 215,770 vehicles.
BMW CEO Helmut Panke said at the group's annual news conference earlier this month he expected core brand sales would slump eight percent in the first quarter.
The success of the iconic Mini, a modern version of the British 1960s cult classic, has taken BMW executives by surprise, and the company has said it expects to increase production at its plant in Oxford, England by around 10 percent in the next few years.
Mini sales rose 40 percent in March from the previous year and were up by two thirds in the first quarter to 45,810 units.
Investors had initially worried that BMW would struggle to make much profit on a product aimed squarely at the lower-margin small car market, but the company says it now makes money on every Mini it sells.