BMW seeking 'tailwind'

The redesigned 5 Series, which BMW showed to journalists Thursday in Portugal, is the beginning of a major model effort that BMW hopes will enable it to reclaim its position as the best-selling premium automaker in Europe - a spot it lost to a resurgent Audi last year.

BMW's portfolio for 2010 includes a redesign of the midsize X3 sport utility vehicle, a four-wheel-drive version of the compact Mini, a new Ghost sedan from Rolls-Royce (also a BMW brand), and fresh takes on existing models like a new convertible version of the 3 Series.

"The new models will give us a tailwind as we accelerate out of the crisis," BMW's chief financial officer, Friedrich Eichiner, said, chatting with a group of journalists at a dinner Wednesday.

BMW managers are proud that they saw the downturn coming in early 2008. They dialed back costs and production, allowing the company to come through the crisis relatively undamaged. Now they hope the timing of the new models is equally good, catching an upswing just as it begins.

Despite a 10.4 percent plunge in sales, BMW will post a pretax profit for 2009, Eichiner said. He also said its car division would return to profit for the fourth quarter after a loss of 76 million euros, or $107 million, in the third quarter. For 2008, BMW reported a net profit of 384 million euros ($524 million) on sales of 44.3 billion euros ($60.4 billion).

Still, Eichiner remains cautious about the year ahead. He frets, for example, about the danger of a commercial real estate crisis in the United States, which could deal a fresh blow to banks in BMW's largest market.

At a time of consolidation across the industry, some analysts have also questioned whether BMW, with sales of a little more than one million vehicles a year, will be able to remain competitive in the long term.

"There are risks in the air," Eichiner said.

The 5 Series, which has not gone through a complete redesign since 2003, is critical to BMW's goal of achieving an 8 percent profit on car sales.

In 2010 BMW also plans a new two-door coupe version of the 3 Series before a complete redesign of that series next year, as well as a face-lift of the 5 Series sport utility vehicle.

The latest generation of the X3, due in the fall, will be made in Greer as BMW tries to insulate itself from swings in the exchange rate.