Makers are helped along by lucrative lease deals
European luxury brands today reported strong sales in December to close a big year for premium vehicles, while the more proletarian Volkswagen brand saw sales dive.
A boom in leases in December -- 27.5% of all sales, the highest single-month lease rate on record, according to Edmunds.com senior analyst Jessica Caldwell -- helped drive the results, particularly for posh Euro-cars. "Almost half of all European branded vehicles sold in December -- including many of the most popular luxury brands -- were leased," she said. "It's entirely possible that we look back at 2013 as the Year of the Lease, and it will be fascinating to see if this becomes an even bigger trend in 2014."
She's sees possible good news in this trend down the road for luxury and other buyers who can't or don't want to pay the price for a new car. "Used car buyers may even expect to see prices come down sharply three years from now when all these leased vehicles come back to market."
The luxury trend was so strong that BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover, Porsche and Maserati tallied record U.S. sales years. The Mercedes brand's record total was enough, however, to outscore BMW in the annual showdown between the German heavyweights to be the best-selling European luxury brand in the U.S.
VW Group's Audi premium brand rode new products and the luxury boom to a record year, while its mainstream VW brand saw sales dive 22.7% for December to close 2013 down 6.9% from 2012.
That actually wasn't bad for VW, says senior analyst Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book: "Those are solid numbers, particularly given Volkswagen's aging product line in this ultra-competitive market. As the automaker consolidates its global platforms and introduces new models in the coming years, starting with the all-new Golf in 2014, it should achieve sales growth on pace with the overall market."
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No excuses for Audi: It said December sales were up 14.6% to 17,013 -- first time Audi has broken 15,000 U.S. sales in a month -- and that 2013 finished up 13.5% at 158,061.
More important to the bottom line, more buyers are choosing the high-end models pushing up the brand's average transaction price nearly $10,000 over the past three years, Audi of America President Scott Keogh said.
SUVs were standouts and the Q5 posted record sales for the month and the year, making it the best-selling Audi.
VW, meanwhile, generated little sales heat with its annual winter no-money-down sales event. The bright spot was the Jetta compact sedan -- up 4.7% from a year ago to 13,719, and the brand did finish the year with sales of 407,704, its second 400K year.
VW also continues to be the U.S. diesel leader: TDI versions of its vehicles were 17.8% of December sales and 23.5% for the year, a total of 95,823.
But sales for VW's other volume model model -- the midsize, U.S.-built Passat sedan -- dropped 36% to 9,254. And the only VW model to finish 2013 up from 2012 was the Beetle -- thanks to a first full year of sales for its new convertible version.
Sales of BMWs were flat in December and the company's Mini brand barely did better than that, but it was enough to give the German sport brand U.S. record sales for the year.
BMW tallied 37,389 sales in the month, and Mini Coopers added another 6,592, for 43,981 total sales in December, up 0.3%. For all of 2013, the company reported 375,382, an increase of 8.1% and a U.S. record for the company.
The automaker's strength in December was its core 3-series models bolstered by the addition of 4-series variants. Together, which is how BMW counts them, those hit 16,737, up 55.8% and the brand's best seller by far. Next closest was the larger 5-series sedan, at half the number.
SUVs, normally a bragging point, were dogs in December, the X3, X5 and X6 down a collective 46.5%.
Buyers could have been waiting to try the X1 to see if it suited them better than the X3, and to sample the X5 re-do instead of buying the leftover version.
Mini was a sales flop across the board, but a few hundred sales of a new model not around a year ago, the Paceman coupe, pushed the Mini brand's total up 2.1%.
A new line of Mini Coopers is coming in March, larger and more powerful, and that could have put buyers in the wait-and-see category, hurting December sales.
Mercedes-Benz said it hit record sales numbers in December and for all of 2013.
The month tally was 33,007, up 17.3%, and the full-year total was 312,534, up 14%.
Strongest performers include:
E-class sedan, recently updated and the brand's best-selling vehicle, was up 25% to 8,727.
CLA, compact sedan that's the least-expensive M-B and is new to the lineup, added 3,285 sales. That makes it No. 4 seller among the luxury maker's 13 model lines.
Top-end S-class, newly made-over, was up 67.3% to 1,857.
M-B's Sprinter cargo vans, tallied separately from the Mercedes-Benz brand totals, were up 26.8% as the market for trade and commercial vehicles picked up.
And the Smart minicars, also reported separately, were down 14.2% to just 855 cars in a month when small-car sales were a challenge for many automakers.
JAGUAR LAND ROVER
Jaguar Land Rover said that 2013 sales for its brands jumped 20% to 66,962 vehicles and that December sales were up 17% to 7,308.
Its Land Rover premium SUVs set an annual record of 50,010, up 15% from 2012, driven by a 56% gain for its redesigned Range Rover flagship and volume leader. The brand's sales were up 11% for December to 5,764.
But the growth leader for JLR was its Jaguar brand. The addition of 4- and 6-cylinder options, a new 8-speed automatic and all-wheel drive for its sedans and introduction of its new F-Type sports car helped drive a 41% jump for the year vs. 2012 to 16,952 cars. Sales for December were up 47% to 1,544, driven by 53% growth for its XF midsize sedan.
"The combination of a strong luxury market and a dramatic increase in consumer interest in both of our brands has led Jaguar Land Rover's U.S. business to outpace the general market," said Joe Eberhardt, president of JLR North America.
With the Cayenne SUV by far its best-selling model in the U.S. -- and the new, smaller Macan SUV still to come -- the VW-owned sports brand reported record U.S. sales of 42,324 for the year -- up 20.8% vs. 2012. December was 3,246, up 10%.
The high-style Fiat-owned luxury brand rode its new, smaller Ghibli entry sedan(if about $60,000 can be called entry) and new, more efficient powertrains to a record year of 4,768. That's small vs. Porsche but represents 77% growth over 2012 and is where Jaguar was not so long ago. And the year finished with a bang -- sales of 1,053 in December, up a whopping 216.2% and nearly a fourth of the annual total.
Along with the new Ghibli and in a similar move to Jaguar, Maserati now has a new V-6 (built by Fiat sibling Ferrari) for the Ghibli and also also available in the flagship Quattraporte sedan -- giving a nod to more fuel efficiency -- and now offers all-wheel drive, a must-have offering in luxury sedans nowadays and not just for cold climates.