WOODCLIFF LAKE, N.J. -- BMW's U.S. dealers won't get all of the 15 new products being rolled out globally by 2018.
But that's fine with BMW of North America CEO Ludwig Willisch, who is focused on the hot-selling crossover segment. The X7, a full-size crossover coming in three years, is what the U.S. market needs, he said.
In general, there's a shortage of crossovers -- especially the compact X3 and midsize X5.
New capacity is being added to help relieve that problem.
Factory capacity at BMW's only U.S. plant, in Spartanburg, S.C., will be expanded to 450,000 vehicles annually by next year, up from today's 350,000.
Despite the shortage of crossovers, Willisch predicts that the BMW brand's U.S. sales will hit another record in 2015, up from 339,738 last year.
Willisch, 58, has been at the helm of the U.S. subsidiary for nearly four years. He was interviewed last week by Staff Reporter Diana T. Kurylko.
Q: Will BMW of North America have another record year of sales?
A: I am sure we will have another record year. I love to talk about accomplishment rather than plans. We are very happy with the development, and so is Munich -- which is always good.
What is driving the increase in business?
First of all, positive market conditions help. The stock market is still positive, and that has always had an impact on our business. Productwise, this is the year of the new 7 series. We are waiting for it to be launched in the fall. The 7-series sedan is the overarching theme this year; it is our flagship.
What can you tell us about the redesigned 7 series? What will be the most significant changes?
It has a lot of innovations: lightweight materials and some new gesture commands. The outside, inside and technology will take that class of cars to a new level.
How far along are dealers with completions and commitments to the new facility standards?
We have 30 completed, another 50 under construction and 150 dealers have signed up for new buildings or major changes -- that is out of a total of 339 dealerships.
What is the estimated total investment in the dealership improvements?
It is more than $300 million to date.
BMW opened its first temporary pop-up store last year. How many more are planned? Is it a good return on investment?
We had one at the South Coast Plaza in Los Angeles. We built it up and did the interiors, and then the dealers ran it. Altogether, it attracted 110,000 people. This is a very upscale mall. You see all the top-notch brands there, and there's BMW. We gave them details about the i8, and we had a special-edition 5 series. It was a huge success. Dealers asked us to prolong it.
We will go there again but with a bigger showroom, right after the summer. We have another project of similar character in northern Los Angeles that we are still negotiating.
Is BMW looking at the East Coast?
As far as the whole nation, we are thinking about more pop-up stores. It will still be a common project with the local dealers. If they embrace it, it is ready to go. We need their partnership to get a benefit out of it.
In the past few years, BMW has launched less expensive cars such as the 2-series coupe and convertible, the more affordable 320i and the X1 crossover. Is BMW bringing in younger buyers?
What I see is that our buyers are the youngest in the premium group anyway. We see that conquest goes up with the 2 series, the X1 and the 320i. Our average age is 49. With the 2 series, the average age is 42, and there is a tendency for more males.
With the dollar strengthening against the euro, will BMW get more cars in the U.S.?
I wish I could. What we are really after is getting more production out of Spartanburg. It is a nice problem to have as a corporation. The X3 and X5 are in very high demand. We are investing further into the plant to see if [we] can get more. At least we are on the way to producing 450,000 light trucks.
When will Spartanburg have a 450,000-unit annual capacity?
Next year. That is a constant battle now, to get more X3s and X5s.
How many more could BMW sell?
At least 10,000.
Will BMW start producing the new, larger X7 crossover next year when the extra plant capacity comes on, or is that further out?
The X7 is further out, at least two years. It comes with the next generation of light trucks.
Which other models are in short supply this year?
The i8. I am running around the whole world collecting cars here and there. The waiting time is still about half a year.
Is the Mini brand going to set a record in 2015? Sales seem to have picked up after a major slump last year.
We had a long ramp-up of the new car. We are in pretty good shape now. It is not only the new hardtop but also the new four-door, and the Countryman is still going strong. We will have the best year ever for Mini. And the U.S. is the biggest Mini market in the world.
BMWs are now sharing platforms with Mini. Do buyers care about platform/architecture sharing?
No, as long as you stay true to the brand and perception of driving. And the looks of the car have to be completely different. The customer doesn't care how you got there, but the result has to be convincing.
BMW has freshened the 3 series, given it new six-cylinder engines and more horsepower, and retuned it to be sportier. Why do this in the middle of the sedan's life?
We have new generations of engines coming, especially for the U.S. We wanted to make it clear that you have the feeling of the ultimate driving machine.
Did the onslaught of 3-series wannabes influence the midcycle changes?
That is something we have experienced for many, many years: people copying or trying to copy us. We are pretty much used to that. We needed to move on and get even better. That is the fate you have when you lead that segment, any segment.
Why does BMW need the hybrid 3 series that's coming this year? The electric range is 22 miles. Is that enough?
Midterm, we will see a development into more hybrids because of legal requirements and the fact that they are getting more and more popular.
What you want with electric driv-ing is to be able to drive downtown without emissions and that you would be able to do that with a 20-, 22-, 25-mile range. When you get out on the highway, you would want to use the internal combustion engine anyway. You plug it in when you get home. You do not have to rely on regeneration.
The i3 electric vehicle is a year old. What has BMW learned?
We would not have thought that the demand for electric vehicles is that different throughout the country. It has helped how we are recognized for embracing future technology, environmental friendliness and sustainability.
Some of the carbon-fiber technology from the i3 is going into the new 7-series sedan?
There will be elements of the body architecture that are made out of carbon fiber.
How many of BMW's 15 new models will be sold in the U.S.?
There are models that we will not at least for the foreseeable future introduce [in] this market. The X7, which is a car that I am proud of -- we were able to convince the company that this is exactly what we need in the United States.
And the cars that aren't coming include small vehicles such as the 2-series Active Tourer and Gran Tourer? Why don't they fit here?
If you look at the segment, it is not something that the United States consumer really appreciates -- 85 percent is light trucks and sedans. The other 15 percent you have to put in is everything else from convertibles to maybe even minivans. We looked at the potential, and it was too small to make sense.
Will you meet the new corporate average fuel economy standard?
By 2017 we will have few additions to our car line. We have plug-in hybrids and [the] i3 and the i8. We will have a plug-in hybrid for each and every major model.
And perhaps another i car by then?
Not by 2017.