Mercedes-Benz led the U.S. luxury-brand sales race through April of 2013, but BMW of North America CEO Ludwig Willisch expects BMW to repeat as No. 1 for the year.
Willisch says help is on the way in the form of three models debuting this fall: the 3-series GT crossover, 4-series coupe and a redesigned X5 crossover.
Willisch, 56, said he is also focused on improving dealer relations, an area in which BMW struggled before he took the helm in October 2011. Willisch was interviewed by Staff Reporter Diana T. Kurylko at BMW of North America headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
Q: Will BMW again be the No. 1 luxury brand in the United States this year? And why is that important?
A: We will do well this year. We have full availability of the 3 series and the xDrive and have added the 3-series wagon. Later this year we will have the 3-series GT and the 4-series coupe. We also have a new X5 coming in the fall. Those should all help sales.
We like to be No. 1. We are No. 1 in the world [in luxury-brand sales] and intend to be in 2013 again [in the United States]. Obviously some competitors are annoyed by the fact that we are No. 1. At least for them, it is meaningful.
Why are you adding the 3-series GT crossover when you have a 3-series station wagon?
The 3-series GT crossover combines the agility of the 3 series with the versatility of a wagon and the elegance of a coupe. It is a bit larger and a bit higher than the 3-series sedan.
Is the new compact X1 crossover bringing in new customers? How many will you sell this year?
Last year we sold almost 9,000 -- we started sales in September. This year, we will at least double that number. It conquers new customers for us -- 75 percent of X1 buyers are new to the brand. We had not counted on a number that high. They come mostly from the mass market manufacturers. It is the first X product with rear-wheel drive as an option and it does very well in the South.
When will BMW roll out new dealership standards?
We have a new corporate identity standard for every new [dealership]. We will talk to every dealer to have an individual plan. We had all the dealers in Las Vegas [in April] for a meeting and there was an understanding that we are mutually making a plan how to go forward.
Did you show dealers the new showroom requirements?
We showed them the new standard for BMW i and they were blown away. They really liked it. It is a module for the showroom made out of wood. You can have two sizes -- one for i3 and the other that combines i3 and i8. It is a separate area, a light-colored wooden display. It curves around and covers the wall. It's a special environment where you show the cars.
You've said BMW will add diesel engines to most of the U.S. model range.
Very true -- for most of the model range. We are convinced that diesel is still a very viable offer in today's environment and has the torque Americans want. Diesel still has a huge advantage in fuel economy over a gas engine, between 20 and 25 percent. That is why we are coming out with a 3 series and 5 series this year and there is more to come. Right now we are looking at 45 mpg highway for the 328 diesel.
How long will it take to put diesels into most of your U.S. vehicles?
How will BMW compete with the $30,000 Mercedes-Benz CLA front-wheel-drive compact on sale this fall?
The 320i [a new entry-level 3-series sedan that has just gone on sale] will play a part in that.
Are you seeing much interest in the 320i?
It is too early, we just have a couple hundred cars on the ground. We can talk about that in June.
There has been talk that BMW will make a 1-series sedan for this market.
But not in the foreseeable future. The next car that we are going to launch in that segment is the car that you have seen, the Concept Active Tourer [crossover]. That car will hit the market in the foreseeable future but not this year.
The Concept Active Tourer is a compact front-wheel-drive wagon. Why does BMW need that in the United States?
There are customers that want a car that is good looking and has more versatility. You can fold the seats down for cargo and drive with five people. A concept that has a drivetrain with front-wheel drive is much more helpful as far as interior space than one where you have the engine in the front and the rear axle is driven.
Are you planning other BMW front-wheel-drive models?
For the foreseeable future in that segment, no.
Many of your competitors say customer service is the next battleground among the luxury brands. How do you improve in that area?
Customer delight, as I'd rather call it, is close to our hearts, and we are really concentrating on that. There is a five-star rating survey for sales and service where we invite the customers to give their evaluation via e-mail. The dealers have the possibility to see the results every day online so they can see where they might have a challenge. It is people, processes and facilities -- all three have to be in line with customer expectations or above. If you want to have customer delight, you have to surprise a customer.
You aren't No. 1 in the CSI surveys yet.
You are right, we have to make a special effort and we have to delight the customer so that he sees us as No.1 as far as customer service is concerned.
How are you changing dealer programs to focus more on CSI?
We are in a constant process of training our dealers. We train with teams that train hotels -- the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons. We clearly look at processes and also at the ratio between daily repair orders and loaners.
We also look at how I as a customer can make an appointment for service. Am I able to book online? When I call do I get an appointment that fits my needs? These things are very relevant and define the level of satisfaction for the whole service.
How long will it take to move up a couple of notches in the quality and satisfaction surveys?
We'd better move up there within the next two years.
How will the X4 crossover fit into your lineup when it arrives in the first half of next year?
The X6 makes sense in the upper level of sport activity vehicles. We thought there is also room for an X4. It is extremely attractive.
Why did you decide change the name of the 3-series coupe/convertible to 4 series. Do you want to charge more for those two cars?
If you go back two generations, the coupe was still quite close to the sedan in all aspects. The biggest differentiator was that it had two doors. Then we moved on, the roofline got more coupelike and the whole car got more special in comparison to the sedan.
If you now look at the new 4-series coupe, it is so different from the 3 series you may as well call it 4. The coupe/convertible type will have an even number and the sedans uneven.
Will you do that with the 1 series as well -- have a 2-series coupe and convertible with the new generation?
It could be.
When do we get the new generation?
Not this year, next year.
How will BMW fight the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S class?
We will cross the bridge when we come to it. The S class and 7 series have been competitors for quite some time. The 7 series has always been a bit more of a driver's car and a bit more on the sporty side.
Are you considering an uber-7 series positioned below the Rolls-Royce since there will be a new S class to compete in that segment?
No. We are absolutely sure we cover the market with a 760Li or a 750Li, and for those who really look for that special luxury sedan at the top, a Rolls-Royce.