We’ve seen the 2017 sales figures for both Mercedes-Benz and BMW in Malaysia. BMW sold more as a group (12,680 units of BMWs, MINIs and motorcycles), but its namesake brand was behind Mercedes – 10,618 vs 12,045 units. The guys from Munich saw much higher growth though – 18% for the BMW brand vs Merc’s 2.3%.

Just like in Malaysia, the two German premium giants have been looking over their shoulders globally. It was a tight race, so tight that the press release headlines were rather confusing. Mercedes had “Number 1” in its PR headline while BMW had “Number One”. Audi wasn’t close enough to claim victory, but had “record-breaking sales” in 2017. Here’s what they proclaimed.

“Mercedes-Benz achieved its most successful year of all time in 2017. As a result of its success in all three core regions – Europe, Asia-Pacific and NAFTA – Mercedes-Benz was the best-selling premium brand in the automobile industry for the second consecutive year. No other German automobile brand in the premium segment posted as strong growth as the Stuttgart-based company with the three-pointed star in 2017,” Mercedes-Benz says.

From L-R: 2017 global sales figures for Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Click to enlarge

“The BMW Group achieved its best-ever annual sales in 2017, the seventh consecutive year it has achieved a new annual record. This success was spread throughout the company with both BMW and MINI brands achieving new all-time high figures. BMW M and BMW i also achieved record sales, as did BMW Motorrad. With this sales result, the BMW Group reconfirms its position as the world’s leading premium automotive company,” BMW says.

“Audi has increased its global sales for the eighth year in a row. Despite a turbulent first half of the year, the company achieved a new record-breaking figure: Around 1,878,100 deliveries represent an increase of 0.6%. The Four Rings sold more than in the previous year in all three core markets in 2017,” Audi says.

So, all three achieved record sales in 2017, and two of them claimed to be number one. Who actually came out tops and what are the margins? We compile.

Last year, Mercedes-Benz sold 2,289,344 cars worldwide, a 9.9% growth over 2016 figures. This excludes Mercedes trucks and the Smart brand (which sold 135,000 compact cars) and is the figure we should take into account.

2017 was the company’s most successful year of all time, sales wise, and Mercedes-Benz has maintained its position as the best-selling premium brand for the second consecutive year. The fourth quarter of last year was the best in Merc’s history (572,044 units, +4.8%). A new monthly record was achieved also in December (193,534 units, +1.7%). Europe was the biggest region for M-B (955,301 cars) but Asia Pacific – which includes China, the brand’s biggest market – showed the strongest growth (+19.2%).

“We can be proud of that achievement – and we will build on it. Success in our core business provides the basis for us to actively shape the mobility of the future. In 2018, we will systematically continue along this path with CASE,” said Dr Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, referring to the company’s Connected, Autonomous, Shared & Services and Electric corporate strategy.

Over in Munich, the BMW Group achieved its best-ever annual sales in 2017, the seventh consecutive year it has achieved a new yearly record. Both BMW and MINI brands achieved new all-time highs, while the BMW M and BMW i sub-brands also achieved record sales, as did motorcycle arm BMW Motorrad.

With all of the above combined, including Rolls-Royce, BMW says that it’s the world’s leading premium automotive company with sales of 2,463,526 units (+4.1%). Note that BMW uses ‘company’ while Mercedes-Benz hailed itself as the ‘best-selling premium brand’. Both are technically correct, because the core BMW brand delivered 2,088,283 units (+4.2%), which is around 200,000 units less than Merc’s 2,289,344 units.

So, the BMW brand is number two in the premium marque league in terms of car sales behind Mercedes-Benz. It still grew by 4.2% to reach a new all-time sales high, though. BMW’s X vehicles jumped 9.6% despite limited availability of the X3 due to the introduction of the new G01 in November; while the 5 Series, which also underwent a full model change last year, climbed 6.3% (291,856). Other models which contributed to the growth include the 1 Series (201,968, +14.7%) and the 7 Series (64,311, +4.5%).

From L-R: 2017 global sales figures for Audi and Volvo. Click to enlarge

Last year, 103,080 electrified vehicles (which includes plug-in hybrids and pure EVs) were delivered, an increase of 65.6%. The BMW Group sold the most electrified vehicles in Europe in the premium segment – i3 sales grew by 23.3% (to 31,482) while plug-in hybrid iPerformance cars (330e, 530e etc) almost doubled to total 63,605. The company is expecting strong double-digit growth in electrified vehicle sales this year and aims to have at least 500,000 electrified BMW Group vehicles on the road by end 2019.

“I am confident BMW sales will continue to grow during 2018, while we also maintain our focus on profitability. Increased availability of BMW X models and our ongoing model offensive, which includes the launches of brand new models this year such as the BMW X2 and the BMW 8 Series, will ensure we bring even more customers to the BMW brand in 2018,” said Pieter Nota, the board member responsible for sales and brand BMW.

Audi hasn’t had the easiest of times, of late. The Dieselgate scandal affected the entire Volkswagen Group, and the giant’s profitable premium brand wasn’t spared. Internal reshuffling, rejuvenated rivals and China all combined for considerable upheaval for the Four Rings. There are positive signs that things are picking up again, though, starting with a late 2017 rebound.

By the end of 2017, Audi’s sales of 1,878,100 was enough for a new company record, and an eighth year in a row that sales increased, although it was just by 0.6% (+3.6% in in 2016). Sales were up in three core markets – by 7.8% in the US, 0.4% in Germany and 1.1% in China. The Ingolstadt carmaker managed to offset a poor first half to maintain its premium segment leadership in China, although its lead over Mercedes there is now slim – 597,866 versus 587,868 units.

It’s a “very challenging situation” that the brand is currently facing, said Bram Schot, board member for sales and marketing.

There’s a big gap separating the German big three and the “alternatives”. Last year also saw Jaguar Land Rover achieve a company best, with sales growing 7% to reach 621,109 vehicles – an amazing result when you consider that sales at JLR have tripled since 2009. Land Rover did 442,508 (+2%) while Jaguar sold 178,601 cars, up 20% thanks to new models such as the F-Pace SUV. Despite the big jump, Jaguar’s sales is less than 10% of third placed Audi’s total.

Another brand that some pundits (and certainly itself) consider as a rival to the Germans is Volvo. The Geely-owned Swedish carmaker also achieved the highest sales ever in its history, with numbers rising 7% to 571,577. The big driver for Volvo Cars last year were the Asia Pacific region (+20.9% thanks to record sales in China, its largest market) and good demand for the new XC60 SUV and the 90-series trio of large cars.

Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo are growing at a steady pace, but it’s clear they are some way off the leading pack, sales wise. But as they say, the more the merrier, and variety is the spice of life. What’s certain is that the premium market has never been so good, for both sellers and buyers alike.

2017 premium brand global car sales
1. Mercedes-Benz, 2,289,344 units
2. BMW, 2,088,283 units
3. Audi, 1,878,100 units

Volvo 571,577 units, Jaguar 178,601 units