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LUXURY carmakers emerged blinking at the brightness of the new decade at the Detroit motor show this month and slightly surprised that the global financial crash hadn't done more damage.

With many premium brands absent at the first event of the year, the German trio of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz made the most of a chance to hog the limelight and reassure showgoers that, having felt themselves all over, they were bruised but intact.

Better still, since their R & D departments had kept their foot to the floor throughout the GFC, they were ready to fight on every technical front, from hybrids to electric vehicles and back again.

Technology will be a key battleground in the struggle for the coveted title of luxury leadership and the race for sales supremacy has never been tighter.

BMW, which overtook Mercedes five years ago, retained top spot and board member Ian Robertson found comfort in a 10 per cent slide in sales for the group, to 1.29 million, which was "more moderate" than expected.

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"Faced with the overall economic crisis, we're quite satisfied with these figures," he said in Detroit. "We had to absorb somewhat larger decreases in the first half of the year, but every other manufacturer did as well.

"However, in the second half we reversed that trend and since September, BMW group's global automotive sales have been back above 2008 levels and they continue to climb."

Robertson expects growth in single digits this year with a next generation 5 Series the centrepiece of the BMW rollout, plus an SUV version of the Mini.

That 10 per cent decline was mirrored at Mercedes, which sold 1.01 million cars, partly thanks to a late run in the final months of last year.

However, its sub-brands are suffering, with sales of Smart city runabouts falling to just 117,000, down 13 per cent, and its super-luxury Maybach limousines finding just 200 buyers, a 30 per cent decline.

By comparison, BMW sold 216,000 Minis and Rolls-Royce achieved 1000 sales.

Mercedes chief executive Dieter Zetsche has reaffirmed a target of 1.5 million sales by 2015 - a 50 per cent increase - and believes a rebound is imminent.

"As auto sales in general are finally heading north again, we're very well positioned for growth," he said in Detroit.

However, the company is known to be looking for a partner to develop the next generation of Smart cars and there are doubts about its commitment to the Maybach experiment, which has been comprehensively trumped by Rolls-Royce. Zetsche expects only a slight increase in vehicle sales for this year.

A 1.5 million sales target is also in the mind of Audi, which has set itself the goal of overtaking both its rivals by 2015.

It could take heart from last year, which saw it gain ground thanks to a sales decline of only 5 per cent, to 950,000 cars. It is now just 120,000 units behind BMW, after Mini sales are removed, and it is the leading premium brand in China.

Audi's success has come thanks to an aggressive product roll-out. That will continue this year, with the next generation of its A8 flagship unveiled in Detroit and a new small car called the A1 due to debut at the Geneva motor show in March.

The A1 takes Audi into a new segment with a car below the A3, while the A8 will be one of the first Audis offered with a hybrid petrol-electric drivetrain.

Hybrid technology, an area where the Europeans had to play catch-up with Lexus, Toyota's luxury arm, has arrived without much fanfare in the German line-ups and will be reserved for larger vehicles, in contrast to the Japanese approach, which fits the system across entire vehicle ranges.

BMW launched its first hybrids -- versions of its 7 Series large sedan and X6 SUV -- late last year although it was pipped by Mercedes, with petrol-electric powered examples of its S-Class and ML a few months earlier. It will fit a diesel hybrid to its E-Class next year.

For the German trio, full electrification has become a more interesting frontier and here their approaches differ.

BMW has been running trials of battery-powered Minis in Europe since 2008 but it took the next step at Detroit by unveiling the first electric car under its own brand, a 1 Series coupe called the ActiveE concept. Using specially developed lithium-ion batteries, the car has a range of 160km and respectable acceleration to 100km/h of nine seconds.

Expertise gained through ActiveE will feed into BMW's sustainable motoring project, which has the goal of developing a mega-city vehicle - "an entirely new vehicle specifically designed to meet the needs of urban mobility" - for launch in the first half of this decade under a sub-brand.

Mercedes also regards battery power as a key ingredient of future small cars and will produce a limited run of electric Smarts later this year, following long-term trials in London, as well as a plug-in A-Class and - in an industry first - series production of an electric B-Class powered by hydrogen.

In contrast, Audi believes battery technology will succeed first at the supercar end of the market, where exotic materials can be used to offset the weight of batteries and overall cost is less critical to showroom success. It committed to offering an electric sports car by 2012 at last year's Frankfurt show after unveiling a spectacular concept called the E-tron.

At Detroit, it unveiled a second E-tron concept and announced that E-tron would become the catch-all term for any Audi with electrification, in much the same way that Quattro has become the brand's generic term for all-wheel drive.

The second E-tron sports car was built in parallel with the first but looks much closer to something that could be put into production. Smaller than the Frankfurt car, it has similar underpinnings to Audi's R8 supercar and uses the same suspension, but owes nothing to the TT.

Crucially, the car has shed weight by using just two electric motors, both at the rear wheels, and a reduced battery pack.

"We did a lot of work on reducing the weight of the car and this is one way: only two engines," said Matthias Seer of Audi's concept division. "The E-tron was 1600kg and now we have 1350kg. This concept allows us to use smaller batteries."

Also gone are some of the elaborate cooling mechanisms, which blocked any rear vision in the Frankfurt car, while the interior develops the original E-tron themes. Fabulous looking, it was one of the sexiest cars at Detroit.

source: theaustralian

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