2009 wasn't a great year for most of the automobile industry, anywhere in the world.
One exception seems to have been BMW, in Canada.
Of course, Canada fared better than most nations during the downturn, due largely to tougher controls on our financial industry, and better fiscal management (thank you, Paul Martin).
The fact that most of our commodity prices held fairly firm didn't hurt either.
In a little parley for the automotive press at the company's new head office in Richmond Hill on Wednesday, BMW Group Canada president and CEO Franz Jung noted that his company was one of the very few divisions of BMW world-wide that recorded a sales increase last year. In fact, it was a record year, leaving BMW as the top seller in Canada's 'premium' segment for the ninth consecutive year.
Mercedes-Benz was a close second, and nobody else is really in the game at this stage. Audi had a remarkable sales increase of some 31 percent, but still moves less than two-thirds as many cars as the Big Two.
Jung allowed that this sales leadership had been expensive; the numbers were attained with the help of substantial incentives, both for purchase and lease customers.
"If you don't fight with the same weapons as your competition, you don't sell!" he said.
Hmm-mm - wonder who starts these fights?
He added that 2010 is going well, and that many of the incentives have expired.
As of the end of August this year, BMW trails Mercedes by about 1,100 deliveries.
"We were almost exactly that far behind at the end of last August too," he said, "so there is still a good chance we can overtake them. Our goal is to be number one or number two - no lower - but we won't spend ten million dollars trying to sell those last 500 cars if it comes to that!
"We know incentives tend to hurt the brand, but it's a fact of life in our business, especially in the lower levels of our segment.
"But we are proud of what we have been able to do, considering that much of our product line-up is a little old. The 3-Series is the heart of BMW, and the current model is in its seventh year, with a replacement coming in 2013. The new 5-Series is just starting to arrive now - we will have limited supply for some time. Diesel and hybrid versions are also on the way. Our X3 was launched in 2003; the all-new replacement [to be built in Spartanburg South Carolina instead of the Magna-Steyr factory in Austria] comes next year, into the hottest segment in the entire business. Below that we will have an X1 Sport Activity Vehicle, in a segment where we will have no competition."
Jung said that BMW shies away from making hard and fast sales projections, but he intimated that 2011 should be a banner year for the BMW brand in Canada, and he did toss out the number '30,000'.
Mini was down in 2009 from its peak year of 2008, and 2010 looks to be about the same as 2009. "But in 2011 we get the all-wheel-drive Countryman," enthused Jung. "Our dealers are excited, and prospective customers who've seen it in clinics say it looks like 'it was designed just for Canada', so we think 2011 will be a breakthrough year for Mini too."
Even the motorcycle division is going strong; 2010 will be a record year for BMW two-wheelers in Canada as well.
Jung also outlined BMW and Mini's plans for electric cars. The Mini 'e' plug-in electric is undergoing tests with carefully-selected customers in the US, England and Germany now, and so far the users are happy with it. Their main concerns going in - lack of range and difficulty of recharging - seem to have been largely allayed.
Then again, customers who sign on for something like this are bound to be enthusiasts.
An electric 1-Series starts a similar program next year, and BMW has announced that a so-called 'Mega City' electric car will debut in 2013.
Jung admitted that Canada isn't foremost in the roll-out plans for electrics, because cold weather and batteries don't play nice together.
Regular readers know that I don't think electric cars will ever be a major part of the car market, certainly not in Canada. Jung allows that most engineers (guilty...) believe that Diesel power, combined with various other fuel-saving technologies like idle-stop and brake energy regeneration (already in production) can deliver better performance at lower cost than gasoline hybrids or pure electrics.
(Hydrogen as a liquid fuel and fuel cells both seem to have taken a back seat at the moment).
However, hybrids and electrics seem to have seized the public's imagination, if not their wallets - hybrids have never accounted for more than a few percent of the car market.
But Jung makes an analogy: "Everybody's going to China these days. Nobody's making any money there - not yet anyway - but how can we say to our supervisory board or investors 'we don't want to go to China'?"
So, hybrids and electrics it shall be.
As long as they keep offering Diesel and gasoline as well, car enthusiasts will be happy.