Mercedes-Benz lurched out of the gate hoping to wear the luxury sales crown for the fourth straight year.
The German luxury brand sold 22,507 vehicles in January, excluding commercial vans. Several factors, including "extreme weather in key markets," contributed to a 11 percent year-over-year decline.
Even so, Mercedes started the year ahead of German rival BMW, which finished No. 2 in the luxury sales derby in 2018 behind Mercedes. BMW's U.S. sales in January dipped 4.8 percent to 18,102.
The dark horse in 2019, however, might be California upstart Tesla, which dominated the public's attention in 2018 with the new Model 3 sedan.
In January, Tesla's U.S. sales nearly reached an estimated 32,000 electric vehicles, compared with a mere 7,700 units a year ago, according to projections by the Automotive News Data Center. Tesla does not report monthly sales figures.
Cox Automotive forecasts Tesla's U.S. sales will likely average 25,000 units each month or better through 2019. InsideEVs, a website that tracks Tesla sales, estimated the company's sales to be much lower — only about 8,300 units.
The Model 3, launched in 2017, accounted for the majority of Tesla's January deliveries.
It remains to be seen whether Tesla can continue its frenetic sales pace after the federal tax credit available to buyers was cut in half on Jan. 1. Tesla has cut prices to partially compensate. Its average transaction price fell 7.5 percent in the past year, according to Kelley Blue Book.
Tesla's turbocharged monthly sales growth could be related to order fulfillment, rather than reflective of current demand. The automaker is likely still fulfilling the several hundred thousand Model 3 orders it accumulated over the past few years.
"This question becomes important as the additional Tesla volume alone will lift the SAAR by 0.2 or 0.3 points in January and each month this year," Cox noted.
The big elephant in the luxury room is Tesla, said Akshay Anand, executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
"One of the underrated stories of luxury has been the emergence of once niche brands steadily evolving into mainstream threats," Anand said. "2019 will be a make or break year for Tesla, but early returns and financial reports lend themselves to cautious optimism."
Overall, U.S. luxury sales rose an estimated 16 percent in January.