Lexus -- the leading luxury-auto brand in the United States for the past decade -- used a 42 percent gain in March to inch ahead of rival Mercedes-Benz after the first quarter.
Lexus sold 20,219 vehicles last month and 49,523 for the year's first three months. Mercedes reported sales of 20,023 cars and SUVs for March, a 28 percent increase from a year earlier, and 49,229 for the quarter. The Mercedes tallies exclude Sprinter vans formerly sold by Dodge -- 1,337 of them in the first quarter.
Mercedes, helped by its revamped E-class sedan, had moved ahead of Lexus and BMW through 2010's first two months. The BMW brand posted a 3 percent increase in March to 18,060 and finished the quarter at 46,323.
Industrywide sales rose 24 percent in March, to push the market 16 percent ahead of a depressed 2009 after the first three months.
“The luxury market is doing pretty well,” said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com, a provider of industry data. “We assumed when times were tough that luxury sales would fall. It has held its share of the market.”
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus benefited from a tripling of sales of its redesigned GX mid-size SUV, as well as increases of 31 percent for the RX SUV and 29 percent for the IS car.
At Mercedes, sales of the E class more than doubled while the C class, its highest-volume model, rose 20 percent.
Not holding back
Mercedes expects more increases from the E class as it adds a convertible version in May and a diesel E-350 in October, said Ernst Lieb, CEO of the brand's U.S. unit.
“We're not holding back,” he said. “We have newer products than some of our competitors. We're going after whatever we can get.”
BMW intends to pass Lexus for the No. 1 rank in the United States by 2012 on the strength of new models, Jim O'Donnell, president of the North American unit, said Wednesday.
In March, BMW spent an average of $4,797 a vehicle on incentives, compared with $3,527 for Mercedes and $1,778 for Lexus, according to Edmunds.com.
“BMW has a lot of good lease deals,” Caldwell said. “They're trying to hold onto the market.” The brand's U.S. share has fallen a tenth of a point to 1.8 percent this year. Sales have risen 8 percent.
Rest of the pack
Among the March results for other luxury brands:
• General Motor Co.'s Cadillac reported a 42 percent increase to 11,639 as sales of the redesigned SRX crossover SUV surged more than sixfold. Cadillac spent a per-vehicle average of $4,307 on incentives, third among luxury brands behind BMW and Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln, according to Edmunds.com.
• Honda Motor Co.'s Acura brand gained 30 percent to 11,722 cars and SUVs.
• Lincoln sales rose 19 percent to 8,693.
• Nissan Motor Co.'s Infiniti sold 9,942 vehicles, a 37 percent increase from a year earlier and the brand's best month since August 2008.
• Volkswagen AG's Audi sold 8,589 vehicles, up 34 percent.
• Tata Motors Ltd.'s Land Rover increased 21 percent to 2,726 vehicles, while Jaguar dropped 16 percent to 983.