US luxury car sales by brand

In the barbell economy, it is the extremes that thrive: Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods; In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack; G-Shock and Rolex. So it is not surprising that in the seven-year sales surge of U.S. cars, the success of popular-priced brands like Subaru and Jeep should be balanced by a compensating rise in premium and luxury brands.

Top-shelf brands, with cars generally selling for more than $40, 000, represent a big and growing slice of the car business. They now account for 11% of total new car sales, when measured by number of units sold. Count the dollars spent, and their presence grows even larger. Luxury cars account for 18% of all car sales revenue, worth $100 billion (figures courtesy of Edmunds.com).

Even those numbers understate the influence of premium brands on the U.S. car business. So lucrative is this market and so long are its product cycles (compared to volume brands) that you would think that the business was being conducted by gentlemen sipping sherry from their leather-covered chairs while attended by white-gloved servants.

Instead, the top brands scrap like schoolyard bullies, challenging each others’ sales results, shadowing their tactical moves, and practicing one-upmanship at every opportunity. Cataloguing the accounting tricks that go into manipulating year-end sales results – in search of a meaningless and potentially harmful designation as the most popular brand – is worth a column on its own.

What all this has led to is a clear pecking order among the premiere players that makes Downton Abbey look like a democracy. Veteran analyst Tom Libby of IHS Automotive divides the luxury players into three tiers. First, there are the leaders, long-established and nearly inviolable: BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. Then there are the strivers, those that are newer, smaller, and less prestigious: Cadillac , Audi, Acura, Infiniti and Lincoln . Finally come the niche brands: Volvo, Land Rover, Porsche, Jaguar, Tesla and Maserati.

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