- Bernhard Kuhnt has been leadingBMW’sNorth American business since 2017.
- He’s presiding over a big launch of new and refreshed vehicles in 2019.
- Kuhnt is also dealing with BMW’s electric-vehicle strategy in the US.
Bernhard Kuhnt took over as CEO of BMW North America at a bit of a tough moment for the automaker. In 2016, BMW had just finished third in the US luxury brand race, behind Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.
In 2017, BMW’s total US sales dipped to 305,685 from 313,174 the previous year, but in 2018 sales recovered to 311,014. Mercedes sales fell 6.3% to 315,959, and Lexus slid 2.2% to 298,310,Automotive News Europe reported.
It was a second-place finish for BMW, but for Kuhnt, it was good to grow.
“We gained volume,” he said in a recent interview with Business Insider.
He added that BMW expects to see further growth in 2019, in the 1-3% range.
New and revamped older models will drive that growth. BMW finally has an entry in the full-size SUV sweepstakes with its X7, arriving this spring. With the X3 compact SUV and the X5 midsize SUV, the automaker’s crossover portfolio is complete.
The ‘heart and soul’ of BMW
A redesigned 3 Series sedan will also land at US dealerships later in 2019, reinvigorating what Kuhnt called the “heart and soul” of the brand. The car dates to 1975 and has defined BMW’s premium identity in America for decades — it’s the original “ultimate driving machine” of the famous bimmer advertising tagline.
Touting a four-door in the age of the SUV — crossover sales have surged in the past few years, while passenger cars have collapsed — might sound odd, but BMW is committed to the horses that it rode to its lofty US market position among Ford, General Motors, and Fiat-Chrysler.
“We believe in sedans!” Kuhnt said. “We’re not giving up on sedans.”
With the new 3 Series on the way, the new 5 Series putting up its best US sales numbers since 2015, the 7 Series being substantially refreshed — “nearly a new car,” Kuhnt said — and a new 8 Series taking aim at the top of the market, BMW clearly has a healthy respect for sedans, as Kuhnt put it.
“We will give consumers a tough choice to make,” he joked about deciding between a BMW sedan or coupé and an SUV.
Conquesting new customers — and bringing BMW passion and emotion to electric vehicles
Kuhnt expects 2019 to be a year in which BMW sustains its most loyal customers — the ones who have been buying or leasing 3 Series without interruption — and win over new buyers.
“To keep an existing customer is our goal,” he said. “But we want to deliver a new 3 Series that’s much better than the old one. The sedan’s upgrade technology package will help BMW achieve that objective.
But Kuhnt said that competition is good.
“It keeps us on our toes, and with X7, we expect to conquest a lot. Early indications are that it will be a good path,” he said.
BMW has also been selling all-electric and hybrid-electric/range-extended electric vehicles in the US for some time, but the numbers have been modest. As Tesla has grown, however, the competitive situation has intensified. Between now and 2025, BMW will roll out 25 electrified vehicles — 12 battery electric, the remainder plug-in hybrids.
“I raise my hat to Tesla,” Kuhnt said. “They’re a success story.”
But he noted that BMW has a core strength in its dealer network (Tesla has opted for a direct-sales approach in states that have allowed it, bypassing the franchise-dealer system).
“We feel that we have an advantage,” Kuhnt said. “Tesla had a period where they were in their own. But they’ll find it increasingly competitive in the US.”
Kuhnt acknowledged that BMW would encounter a spread of consumer reactions as it introduces new electric vehicles. But he said that, in his experience, new EV drivers are “blown away” by what happens behind the wheel.
That’s critical, in Kuhnt’s mind, because thrills are an integral part of the BMW DNA.
“We are the ultimate driving machine,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is create passion and emotion.”
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