Luxury battle part one: Audi vs. BMW vs. Mercedes-Benz from 1997 to 2013

This article is the start of a series of sales analysis of the “German Big Three” premium automakers Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz in Europe. I will start a bit general, before zooming in on some notable trends and differences in strategy and sales. I’d like to hear what you think about these articles, so feel free to comment at the bottom of the page.

Mercedes-Benz-GLA-luxury-battle-European-salesThe German luxury automakers have grown faster than the overall market in the past 17 years, as their combined market share has increased from just over 10 percent of the market in 1997 to 16 percent in 2013. In 1997, just 60.000 units separated first place from third place, a figure that had only slightly grown in 2013, to 70.000 units. However, the path in between wasn’t as straightforward as you would expect from these numbers.


As we can see from the graph above, Mercedes-Benz was the luxury leader in 1997, with Audi following in second place thanks to the success of the A3, leaving the brand from München behind in third place. While the graphs of Audi and BMW show a somewhat comparable curve, Mercedes-Benz would increase its lead by a large margin from then on, to over 200.000 units above both competitors in 2001, before flattening out. I will explain how and why in another article. Meanwhile, Audi and BMW didn’t start to truly catch on until 2004, when they started winning streaks of 5 years (Audi) and 4 years (BMW) of consecutive growth, while the Stuttgart brand would suffer a net loss of 34.000 units over the years 2003 to 2008. In that period, Audi added almost 120.000 units and BMW an even more impressive 170.000 units, or over a third of its volume, passing Audi in the process.

Audi-RS-Q3-luxury-battle-European-salesThen the Global Financial Crisis struck Europe badly in 2009, and volume of the German premium automakers fell sharply, especially for BMW and Mercedes-Benz. As the whole market was down, the market share loss was limited to a relatively low 1,8 percentage point from 2008 to 2009. It would take the three brands another two years to regain that lost piece of the market.

However, as Audi wasn’t hit as hard as the other two brands, the brand from Ingolstadt came up on top for the first time in 2009 and has kept its lead ever since. Mercedes-Benz was also passed by BMW in 2010, but the brand started a come-back:  was the biggest gainer again in 2013. They have their revised line-up of small cars to thank for that, as the new A-Class and CLA have enabled the brand to catch up on the already successful A3 and 1-Series.

BMW-2-series-Active-Tourer-luxury-battle-European-salesIt looks like 2014 is going to be another interesting year, with the brands closing in on each other, trying to fill every niche in the market by adding more and more derivatives of existing models and watching each other’s every move.


For the mid- to long-term future, they appear to have different visions, as all three brands are following different paths to alternative propulsion. Who will have chosen the right track in hindsight? Or will all  three visions prove to be successful? Only time will tell.