But according to newly released U.S. vehicle registration data from Experian, BMW managed to hang on to its crown for the year. Tesla came in at No. 2, ahead of Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.
Tesla will have another shot to dethrone legacy rivals for the top spot this year, as a new factory in Texas boosts production of the popular Model Y crossover, Tesla's bestselling model.
Experian said in a report this week that BMW had 347,453 new vehicles registered in the U.S. in 2021, while Tesla had 342,412 — a difference of just 5,041 vehicles.
It has been a heated race.
Tesla registrations surged 71 percent over 2020, while BMW's grew 24 percent year over year, according to Experian. Those numbers suggest that Tesla has significant momentum going into 2022, although semiconductor shortages will likely play an important role in the luxury car race.
The 2021 registration data has been closely watched because Tesla doesn't break out U.S. sales from its global delivery numbers.
Industry analysts look to state-by-state registration numbers for clues about where the EV leader sits compared with its rivals. Globally, Tesla sales rose 87 percent last year to 936,172 from its factories in California and China, the automaker said.
But sales and registration numbers don't track perfectly for a variety of reasons. Vehicles sold in one month can be registered in another, and some registration data may include estimates when exact numbers are unavailable, analysts said. Some industry estimates put Tesla sales higher than BMW for 2021.
"When the numbers are close, it's hard to declare a winner when you aren't always comparing apples to apples," said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds. Registration data is often useful when analyzing numbers not made public by automakers, such as fleet sales, she said.
BMW's own sales data put deliveries last year at 336,644. Lexus said it sold 304,475 vehicles, and Mercedes reported official deliveries of 276,102.
Ultimately, manufacturer sales data is the official record, Caldwell said, because of the guesswork that goes into calculating Tesla's numbers.
For example, a 2021 sales estimate from Cox Automotive gave Tesla the edge over BMW with 352,471 U.S. deliveries.
"Tesla didn't only dominate the EV market, Tesla dominated the overall luxury market, outselling Audi, BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz in the U.S.," Cox said last month.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has estimated that the company's global sales will rise by at least 50 percent this year as factories in Berlin and Austin, Texas, come online in the first part of 2022. The Texas factory will first make the Model Y and likely next year the Cybertruck.
Other details from this week's Experian registration report:
- The Model Y was the bestselling EV in the U.S. last year, with 169,325 registrations.
- The Tesla Model 3 sedan was No. 2 in EV sales, with 151,599 registrations.
- The Ford Mustang Mach-E was third, with 25,695, and the Chevrolet Bolt was in fourth place, with 23,078, Experian said.
- California was by far the leading state for EV registrations, with 169,995 new registrations among all brands, an 80 percent increase over 2020.
- Texas, now home to Tesla's headquarters after they moved from California last year, was far behind, with just 28,818 registrations. Nonetheless, that was more than double the state's 2020 number.