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BMW aims for top spot in 2012 as luxury sales surge

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BMW posted record car sales for 2011 and forecast that a boom in luxury cars would keep it ahead of rivals this year as the world's biggest maker of premium cars enjoys strong demand from China and the United States.

The Munich-based company said on Monday that worldwide sales of BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce cars rose 14.2 percent to 1.67 million last year as it sold more X3 sport untility vehicles, 5 Series models and MINIs.

Appetite for BMW's ultra-luxury cars reached a new high, with annual sales of Rolls-Royce vehicles in 2011 rising to the highest level in the company's 107-year history, jumping almost 31 percent to 3,538 cars.

Finance chief Friedrich Eichiner said last week he expected the global market for premium cars to grow at more than 8 percent this year, more than twice as fast as the overall car market, which should work in favour of BMW.

Volkswagen said last week that 2011 sales of luxury Bentley cars rose 37 percent to 7,003 after recording the brand's second-highest sales volume ever in December.

Credit Suisse analyst Arndt Ellinghorst raised his target price on BMW shares to 76 euros from 72 euros, saying he expects premium carmakers to come out ahead this year as the gap between the strong and the weak widens further.

"Globalisation of demand and the emergence of wealth in emerging markets have widened the gap between global players with strong brand equity and weak domestically-dependent brands," Ellinghorst said in a note one Monday.

BMW's biggest single market is the United States, where it sells about 18 percent of its vehicles. It is followed by Germany and China, accounting for 17.8 percent and almost 14 percent, respectively.

BMW said the rate of sales growth slowed to 11.9 percent in December.

GOOD PROSPECTS

BMW Chief Executive Norbert Reithofer earlier said in a newspaper interview that he was "very optimistic about the U.S. market's growth prospects," after the German carmaker's sales there grew by almost 15 percent there in 2011.

Reithofer told The Wall Street Journal he expects vehicle sales growth to be fastest in the second half of the year thanks to the market launch of the new BMW 3 Series next month.

One in three BMWs sold is a 3 Series, and the new car is crucial for BMW to fend off rivals Mercedes-Benz and Audi, the premium brand of Volkswagen.

Reithofer's comments come as the Detroit Auto Show opens on Monday, where car makers are showing off upcoming models such as Cadillac's ATS, with which General Motors (GM-N) is squarely targeting BMW's 3 Series. nL1E8C900C

BMW grabbed the top spot in the U.S. luxury car market last year, edging out Toyota's Lexus and Daimler's Mercedes-Benz.

Reithofer said he expects BMW to grow faster than the overall market this year, after entering the new year with strong orders.

"We're starting 2012 with a very good order book and very young model range ... this should provide some momentum."

Analysts are forecasting BMW's 2012 revenues to rise 1.5 percent to about 69 billion euros ($88 billion US), according to Reuters data, while earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) are pencilled in at down almost 14 percent at about 6.9 billion euros, weighed down by costs for the 3 Series model changeover.

They expect BMW to have reached its target of a 2011 operating margin above 10 percent at its automotive business. BMW is due to publish 2011 results on March 13.

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