FRANKFURT Audi, the premium car brand of Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE), posted record sales in 2011 as demand for luxury cars in China and Russia helped it gain ground on bigger rivals like BMW (BMWG.DE) and Daimler's (DAIGn.DE) Mercedes-Benz.
Audi on Monday unveiled sales growth of 19.2 percent for last year, outpacing 12.8 percent for the BMW brand and 8.0 percent at Daimler's luxury brand.
The VW unit sold 1.30 million cars in the year, compared with 1.38 million BMWs and 1.26 million at Mercedes-Benz.
Audi wants to dethrone BMW as the world's number one premium car maker by 2015 through powering ahead in China and the United States, the world's biggest luxury car market.
BMW is betting on the same thing and believes demand in these two key markets will keep it ahead of the pack.
BMW 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.
Credit Suisse analyst Arndt Ellinghorst raised his target price on BMW shares to 76 euros from 72 euros, saying he expects premium car makers to come out ahead this year as the gap between the strong and the weak widens further.
"Globalization 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 on Monday.
Audi, BMW and Daimler all sell more than half of their cars in Europe, but soaring growth rates in faster-growing markets such as China, the United States, Latin America and Russia are decreasing their dependence on their home market.
Audi's sales in China jumped by about 37 percent in 2011 and were up a hefty 62 percent in December alone. In the United States, sales grew by 15.7 percent.
BMW grabbed the top spot in the U.S. luxury car market last year, edging out Toyota's (7203.T) Lexus and Daimler's (DAIGn.DE) Mercedes-Benz.
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 in 2011.
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 new 3 Series.
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 (NSUG.DE), the premium brand of Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE).
Nonetheless, German car association VDA's President Matthias Wissmann said in Detroit on Monday that he expects German carmakers' sales in the United States to grow faster than the overall U.S. auto market.
($1 = 0.7865 euros)
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Gould in Frankfurt and Christiaan Hetzner in Detroit; Editing by Chris Wickham)