The established German luxury brands--Mercedes-Benz and BMW--have sold cars in the U.S. for decades.

So how could Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] possibly be beating them at their own game?

The answer lies in how you define sales: It appears that the Tesla Model S electric sport sedan is outselling both the BMW 7-Series and the Mercedes-Benz S Class in what's called the "large luxury" segment of the U.S. market.

It also apparently outsells the Audi A8, the Lexus LS, and a handful of other full-size sedans from luxury or near-luxury makes.

Beating Audi, Benz, and BMW

Tesla said on April 1 that it delivered "more than 4,750" Model S cars during the first quarter of this year, from January 1 to March 31.

In comparison, here are the first-quarter sales for the large luxury competitors:

  • Audi A8:1,462
  • BMW 7-Series: 2,338
  • Lexus LS: 2,860
  • Mercedes-Benz S Class: 3,077

There is one car in the large luxury segment that outsold the Tesla Model S, however.

That's the 2013 Cadillac XTS, the newly introduced replacement for the previous DTS (itself derived from the old De Ville). Fully 7,130 XTSes were delivered from January through March.

However, we'd agree with commentators who suggest that, despite its strides in design, features, and technology, the Cadillac brand still doesn't compete head-to-head with the German luxury incumbents.

And we strongly doubt many Tesla Model S buyers considered an XTS as an alternative--or even know where their local Cadillac dealer is.

Segment vs brand

It's important to note, however, that this doesn't mean Tesla sold more cars than these brands.

It competes in only a single segment of the market, with one vehicle class.

The established luxury brands, on the other hand, offer many models in many segments--from compact sedans and crossovers to "sports activity coupes" and "four-door coupes" and a host of other types of vehicle, both standard and not-so-standard.

Tesla has said it might deliver 20,000 to 25,000 cars this year--not all of them in the U.S. For comparison purposes, here are the 2012 U.S. sales totals for the top luxury brands:

  • Audi: 139,310
  • BMW: 281,460
  • Cadillac: 149,782
  • Lexus: 132,741
  • Mercedes-Benz: 274,134

(Note that Mercedes-Benz and BMW have been arguing over who "sold" more and who delivered more last year.)

Tesla Model S outside High Gear Media office, Menlo Park, CA, March 2013 [photo: Eugene Lee]

Tesla Model S outside High Gear Media office, Menlo Park, CA, March 2013 [photo: Eugene Lee]

Common in Silicon Valley

That said, Teslas are seemingly becoming ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, one of the most demanding, advanced, and visible car markets in the country.

Readers send Tesla photos to us from all over, but the ones from the San Francisco Bay Area are rife with not just one or two Teslas, but multiple Model Ses.

They often cluster at high-tech companies, as shown by a tweeted photo of a dozen Model S cars at Apple Computer.

And our cover photo, courtesy of reader and author Anton Wahlman, shows six Model Ses parked outside the shops on San Jose's prestigious Santana Row.

Yes, there's a Tesla Store there, but Wahlman swears none of those cars had distributor or dealer plates--meaning they were all privately owned.

Will it continue?

There remain questions, of course, about whether Tesla can keep up the pace, how fast it is chewing through its queue of reservations, and how quickly it can expand into Europe and Asia.

Still, Tesla beating BMW and Mercedes-Benz even in a single car class isn't necessarily something that might have been likely three years ago.

Do you think the story will be the same--the Model S will outsell the S Class and 7-Series in the U.S.--at the end of the year?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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