About the only thing that might disturb the slumber of the bosses of BMW and Audi, whose sales and profits are running
at turbocharged levels, is how to keep the gravy train rolling.
Audi made a record £4.4bn operating profit last year — equivalent to almost half of owner VW's total operating income. It works out at about £3,400 per car. And BMW had a record year too, reinforcing its position as the world's top seller of premium vehicles. The BMW Group made an operating profit of £6.6bn. Almost 1.67 million cars were sold, including Mini (up 21 per cent) and Rolls-Royce (up 30 per cent to 2,711 cars). BMW-badge cars outsold Audi — just. Number three global premium maker Mercedes-Benz is falling behind. The non-German rivals — Volvo, Lexus, Jaguar — have loyal followings but small sales by comparison.
So what keeps — if anything — the chiefs of BMW and Audi tossing and turning? They must pray that the Chinese stay in love with shiny new German cars (and there is no sign of that abating). They must pray that US sales continue to boom. Perhaps, most of all, they must hope that BMWs and Audis don't become so ubiquitous that the world ceases to regard them as 'premium' cars.
It's a curious phenomenon. The BMW 3-series, the world's best selling premium car, responsible for 35 per cent of all BMW brand sales, easily outsells the similarly sized Ford Mondeo in Europe and Britain. It also outsells all Peugeots, Renaults, Citroëns, Nissans, Toyotas and Hondas in the UK. Yet the BMW is regarded as 'exclusive' while the others are about as upmarket as a bottle of Co-op own-brand lager.
Ian Robertson, the British-born boss of BMW's sales and marketing, once told me that the key was to continue to offer cars that were a cut above the 'mass makers' in quality, image and performance.
BMW has also massively broadened its range, reducing the ubiquity of any single model. We find 1-, 3-, 5-, 6- and 7-series; a choice of saloon, convertible, coupé and estate iterations; four different cuts of SUV (from small X1 to gigantic X6). There
is even the curious big 5GT hatchback (we can excuse the odd flop). Audi, meanwhile, has expanded from 17 to 41 separate models in the past decade.
Into this supercharged sales environment comes the new BMW 3-series. It is the sixth generation of BMW's most important car, slightly restyled — just as successive generations of those other German classics, the VW Golf and Porsche
911, are always mildly fettled
in appearance — yet comprehensively re-engineered.
After a lengthy test drive on demanding Andalusian roads, I am pleased to report it is an excellent car — as we've come to expect from the 3-series. It is even more agile than the class-best previous-generation 3. Ride quality and cabin trim quality are noticeably enhanced. Plus the engines, always a BMW forte, are stronger yet more fuel frugal. The best selling 320d version combines an astonishing meld of fuel economy and speed with miserly 118g/km CO2 emissions — the latter reducing tax for business users.
Audi, not to be outdone,
has also upgraded its 3-series-rivalling A4. Though Audi now outsells BMW in Europe, the A4 has never quite enjoyed the showroom success of the 3 (in Britain, sales of the A4 saloon are half those of the 3 saloon). The new version records notable improvements in fuel economy and some less perceptible changes in style. As before, it
is beautifully built and finished — the best in class. And, as before, it is behind the 3 in driving brio, handling and ride.
Both new cars add lustre
to the BMW and Audi halos, ensuring that Messrs Reithofer and Stadler — the respective bosses — can continue to sleep peacefully at night.
Gavin Green is a motoring journalist and consultant.
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