DETROIT – A few years ago, reporting a 4% loss in sales would have been considered a disaster at BMW AG, but in 2008, executives felt luckier than most.

The BMW Group, including the Rolls-Royce and Mini brands, sold more than 1,400,000 vehicles worldwide in 2008, 4% less than the previous year.

The BMW brand delivered 1,200,000 vehicles last year, 6% less than in 2007, but the Mini and Rolls-Royce brands fared better. Mini sold 232,000 vehicles worldwide in 2008, representing a 4% increase compared with 2007.

The Rolls-Royce marque did exceedingly well in 2008, thanks to having four models in its lineup for the first time, says Ian Robertson, BMW’s board member for sales and marketing.

“We sold 1,212 of these top-luxury automobiles around the globe,” he tells reporters at the North American International Auto Show here. “That is 20% more than in 2007.”

The BMW Group performed considerably better than the overall global premium-vehicle segment.

“We are confident that we will be able to outperform the overall premium segment again in 2009,” Robertson says. “Our aim is to maintain or even expand our share in the global-premium segment.”

In North America, the BMW Group’s most important retail market, sales slid 9.7% last year to 303,600 BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce units, including 249,000 BMW-brand vehicles in the U.S.

However, Mini sales in the U.S. soared 29%, to more than 54,000 vehicles, while Rolls-Royce deliveries jumped 17% to 449.

“BMW still is the No.1 European automobile brand in the U.S., and we also are gaining on the (segment) leader, Lexus,” Robertson says. “The BMW brand was even able to improve its premium-segment share by 0.4%, to 15.1%.”

Despite the bleak outlook for 2009, Robertson reinforces the auto maker’s commitment to the U.S., calling it “our second home.”

BMW is standing by its long-term plans to invest $1 billion in production and sales here, including building a new administration and training center in New Jersey; new parts distribution centers in Pennsylvania and Illinois; and an expansion of its plant in Spartanburg, SC, for the production of the upcoming BMW X3 cross/utility vehicle.

“No other plant in the U.S. exports more vehicles than our plant in Spartanburg,” Robertson says. “Over 70% of the production is exported.

“In the last years, we invested $4.2 billion in this facility. BMW Spartanburg, along with suppliers and distributors, employs over 23,000 people in South Carolina, and together, they contribute $8.8 billion to the state economy.”

dwinter@wardsauto.com