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BMW to sell luxury cars for less online

The BMW i3 concept car at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show in January. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)

BMW will sell cars over the Web for the first time as the world’s largest maker of luxury vehicles seeks an inexpensive way to reach more buyers to recoup spending on its electric models.

A direct online sales platform for BMW’s new I sub-brand will be unique in an industry where, outside of small-scale experiments, competitors leave Internet orders for cars to dealers. BMW’s range of strategies for the models, including a roaming sales force backing a limited showroom network, reflects the challenge carmakers face as low-emission vehicles trickle into dealerships to sluggish demand after years of development.

“There is considerable risk in BMW’s approach of promoting the I brand so prominently,” said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management at the University of Applied Science in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. “There is the image risk, if they don’t succeed as quickly as expected, and then there’s the main risk of costs, which can only be countered with high deliveries.”

BMW opened the I models’ first showroom Tuesday in London, although only prototype cars and informational materials will be displayed at first because the vehicles themselves won’t go on sale before next year. BMW is spending about $3 billion developing the i3 battery-powered city car and i8 plug-in hybrid supercar, according to an estimate by Frost & Sullivan. Industry sales of electric cars last year, at 43,000 vehicles, were only 57 percent of the 75,000 deliveries predicted by Sarwant Singh, a London-based automotive partner at the consulting company.

Starting prices posted

The four-seat i3, scheduled to reach the market in late 2013, will be priced at about 40,000 euros ($48,500), Bratzel estimated. That compares with a 23,850-euro starting price ($29,388) in Germany for the 1-Series, the cheapest BMW-brand car. The i8, targeted for sale in 2014, will cost more than 100,000 euros ($123,221), according to Ian Robertson, BMW’s sales chief.

Details of how I-model buyers, the website and dealerships will interact are “still in the planning process” and will be communicated later, Linda Croissant, a spokeswoman at Munich- based BMW, said last week. Sales will be focused on the world’s major urban areas, she said.

The online sales option is aimed at a generation of drivers used to making daily purchases over the Internet, and will be an extension of the car configuration that most automakers offer customers to view models with desired options such as interior colors, seat materials and roof styles.

Test drives not an option



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