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How BMW aims to outsell other luxury makes

The president of BMW of North America talks with The Times about sales goals, diesel engines, front-wheel drive and the controversy over cup holders.

November 26, 2011|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • Actress Paula Patton, left, and Ludwig Willisch, president of BMW of North America, introduce the BMW i8 concept vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Actress Paula Patton, left, and Ludwig Willisch, president of BMW of North… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Ludwig Willisch took over as president of BMW of North America at a fortuitous time. The German native joined the company in July, just as it was beginning a run that has BMW on target to edge out Mercedes-Benz and topple Lexus from an 11-year reign as the top-selling luxury make in America.

Willisch visited the Los Angeles Auto Show to unveil the M5, a sports sedan he helped design, and several BMW electric and hybrid models. He talked with The Times about the importance of being No. 1 and BMW's place in the United States.

BMW looks to take the luxury sales crown this year. Is this important?

Success has always been important to us. Successful people like to buy from a successful company. For a long time we have not been the top luxury brand in the U.S. It is still more important for us to be the most successful premium manufacturer in the world, but since we have been leading in the U.S. for the last 10 months, we are going to go for it.

Bringing the new X3 [small SUV] and new 5 Series [sedan] into the country has added to our sales. They have been quite popular.

Will your drive to finish first translate into year-end deals for consumers?

We are not going to do silly things. We are also in this market to make money and that is a tough job, looking at the value of the dollar compared to the euro. No, we are not going to be giving cars away for free on New Year's Eve.

Where do you see the luxury auto market going?

We see a tendency to smaller luxury premium cars around the world. We see a tendency to smaller engines. So if you look five to 10 years out, we see smaller BMWs and smaller engines, and we are confident these cars will be very successful and be true BMWs.

I am really convinced that the X1 [small SUV available in Europe] would sell well in this country.

BMW is known for having popular models with diesel engines in Europe, but you have only a diesel 3 Series and an X5 here, both with the same engine. Why not have a larger range in the U.S.?

It's not a matter of just bringing the car into the market. It needs a lot of changes to meet U.S. standards, and in some cars, the packaging doesn't allow for it. You have to give up trunk space and all that. I believe in the long run that we will be able to bring diesels into this country and that people will enjoy them. But you just can't put the cars on the boat for New Jersey and then sell them off the dock.

You are coming out with a range of front-wheel-drive vehicles under the BMW brand. Does that risk changing the image of the company? And who do you think will be the buyers of these vehicles?

We went through that [question] with "Would BMW ever build a wagon, or ever build an SUV, or a diesel?" and we do all that now. So I think that if you really look at the question of [how] to build a small car, a spacious car and a production car, [it is about] what is the most efficient way, keeping in mind that you have to offer the consumer a true BMW.

As long as you aren't looking at top end power, I am convinced that it is necessary to offer cars to consumers that are different than what we have today … something that is more spacious and has good fuel economy. The powertrain to the back [in rear-wheel drive] always takes up a lot of space. We are convinced that we can do it right and will starting in 2014. It will enlarge the model lineup.… You won't see a front-wheel-drive 3 Series.

How do people shop for cars these days?

Customers used to come to our showrooms four or five times before they buy. Now they are coming once because they have done all their research on the Net, and you have to make sure that experience is good.

We have to be much more knowledgeable because customers are much more informed. They know all the details about our new car.

What's up with the cup holders in BMWs? They just don't match up with American and Asian brands, and it has become a real talker.

Cup holders have been a huge issue in the company. This has been a 20-year debate within the company. This is really about taking into account customer needs, and obviously at a certain point in time the engineers did not believe that this was an issue. But the new 3 Series has a solid cup holder in the center console. It is there where you need it.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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