By Tim Higgins Bloomberg News
DETROIT — Volkswagen’s Audi brand, beginning a push to improve customer service at its U.S. dealerships, may be the spoiler in the U.S. luxury vehicle sales race, helping Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz by shearing buyers from BMW.
The U.S. luxury sales race looks to be heading for another close finish between Mercedes and BMW. Mercedes is ahead of BMW by 5,221 deliveries this year through September after finishing 2,715 behind in 2011. A contest once dominated by Toyota’s Lexus, No. 1 for 11 straight years, is now volatile, making it difficult for BMW to repeat.
The U.S. is a significant piece of the tightening global sales race, where fast-growing Audi is closing in on BMW and both lead Mercedes. Audi models, with their reputations for sporty driving, are more often compared with BMW’s than with Mercedes vehicles, according to data provided by Edmunds.com, a website that tracks online shopping.
“If you were going to blame anybody for BMW not making it, I definitely would point toward Audi,” Ivan Drury, an industry analyst with Edmunds.com, said in a telephone interview. The data “shows a clear rivalry brewing,” he said in an e-mail.
About 27 percent of Audi shoppers considered BMW in September while 16 percent considered Mercedes, according to Edmunds data.
“Audi is BMW’s most heavily cross-shopped brand,” Drury said in the e-mail.
U.S. sales of Audi rose 18 percent to 100,694 through September, according to researcher Autodata. That exceeds sales increases of 13 percent to 191,618 by Mercedes and 4.9 percent to 186,397 by BMW. The figures don’t include Daimler’s cargo vans and Smart cars and BMW’s Mini brand, which aren’t luxury vehicles.
Audi “could be a spoiler,” Rebecca Lindland, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive. “When there’s a third horse in an election race, it can really throw off everything. For so long, it was just Mercedes and BMW in that race, and now Audi. I don’t know that you could call them an upstart anymore.”
Audi, helped by new products and aggressive marketing, has announced it’s targeting annual sales of 200,000 by 2020.
“We’re going to do it significantly sooner,” Scott Keogh, chief executive officer of Audi’s U.S. operations, said in an interview in Detroit. Keogh took over the operations in June after Johan de Nysschen left to lead Nissan’s Infiniti luxury brand.
Audi plans to begin selling the A3 sedan and Q3 sport- utility vehicle in 2014 in the U.S., Keogh said.
That “is the year where we’re really going to see a very big lift for the business,” he said. With those new vehicles, he said, “you’re going to quickly start to see us in the 170- plus camp and 200 is just down the road from there.”
Keogh was in the Motor City to speak to 600 employees from area dealerships and regional staff about the brand’s new customer-service initiative. It was one of 16 live events in eight cities that Audi is holding for about 12,000 dealer employees and brand staff aimed at improving Audi’s 46 percent loyalty rate, he said.
“The best is either Lexus or Mercedes, they kind of tap- dance back-and-forth,” Keogh said. “Usually they’re hovering in the mid-50s to high-50s.”
BMW ended Lexus’ U.S. streak in 2011 after the Toyota brand was hurt by vehicle shortages stemming from natural disasters in Asia, including an earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Ludwig Willisch, head of BMW’s U.S. operations, in an interview last month, reiterated that his brand will finish on top for the year, helped by a new all-wheel-drive version of the 3 Series and new X1, a vehicle that’s a step below BMW’s X3 midsize SUV.
The U.S. fight for luxury leadership is just one front in the global battle between BMW, Audi and Mercedes for upscale buyers.
BMW’s lead against Audi as of Sept. 30 narrowed to 12,462 vehicles from a 48,801-delivery advantage a year earlier. Munich-based BMW’s worldwide sales through September increased 8.6 percent to 1.11 million cars and SUVs. Ingolstadt, Germany- based Audi reported a 13 percent jump in nine-month deliveries to just under 1.1 million, while Mercedes posted a 5 percent increase to 964,926. Volkswagen, Audi’s parent company, is based in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Audi’s increasing success in the luxury segment in the U.S. means the composition of customers is changing, Keogh said.
“We used to be the seventh most cross-shopped brand” among imported luxury cars in 2008, Keogh said. “If you look at it now, we’re at No. 2. We’re the second most cross-shopped brand in our luxury segment.”
U.S. sales of the redesigned A6 sedan rose 36 percent and Q5 gained 5.9 percent last year. Audi has been further helped this year by an updated A4 sedan with sales rising 4.3 percent through September.
“What’s happened now is you’re seeing these people come into our showrooms and these people obviously have very high expectations and we need to meet those expectations,” Keogh said.
Audi dealers have spent around $206 million renovating their stores the past two years, Keogh said. The brand is following up with its initiative to improve customer service, dubbed “Kundenbegeisterung,” or customer delight. The program includes emphasizing ideas such as valuing a customer’s time.
Keogh said some Americans may bungle the German pronunciation.
“I’m not sure I have it perfected,” he said.