Years ago, if anyone suggested imported cars would make inroads into the highly tariffed South Korean market, he would have drawn much laughter from analysts, and even from the man in the street.

Koreans, throughout the generations living in the era of the automobile, have been fiercely nationalistic in their purchases – except for a few at the top of the income stream with the resources to shop foreign.

But now the burgeoning Korean middle and upper middle class has driven purchasing power high and wide, while free-trade agreements have sent import tariffs to the bottom and in 2015 many will disappear entirely.

Imports not only are gaining dramatically in Korea, with the domestic market down or languishing, but they also are robbing Hyundai and Kia of much-needed profits in the luxury-car sector.

Five years ago, with Korean affluence well-established, the 23 import brands collectively held 6.0% of the country’s automotive market, with deliveries of 61,648 new vehicles out of total domestic sales of 958,854.

In 2013, the number of imported cars sold in Korea shot up 250% to 156,497 units, passing the 150,000 mark for the first time and taking 12.1% of total sales of 1,137,027. That was achieved in an overall Korean domestic market that was down 2% year-on-year, with deliveries by Korea’s five local automakers off 2.1%

The Korea Automobile Manufacturers Assn. expects total sales, including imports, to grow only 2.2% this year. But the Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Assn. projects 10% growth by the imports, noting this is conservative and takes into account high levels of consumer debt and consumer doubts about the economy.

Leading the onslaught, and dramatically ahead in the import charge, is BMW Group Korea. Last year was the brand’s best ever, with sales of 33,066 vehicles, up 17.5% year-on-year, and accounting for more than 21% of all new import registrations.

Next closest was Volkswagen, which sold 25,649 vehicles and Mercedes-Benz, which once led the pack, recording 24,780 deliveries. Audi was fourth with 20,044.

Combined with its Mini brand, whose sales increased 6.3% to 6,301 units, BMW Group's total deliveries hit 39,367, taking 25% of South Korea’s total import market.

At his annual news conference, BMW Korea President and CEO Kim Hyo-joon notes a new milestone also was reached by the BMW Motorrad, with 1,328 of the 0.5L motorbikes sold, a 20% increase over 2012.

Kim says the hot seller in the car portfolio for 2013 was the new BMW 5-Series, which saw deliveries jump 22% to a record 14,867.

The importers’ association rates the BMW 520d model as the top-selling imported car of 2013, with 8,346 deliveries, far ahead of the next best seller, the Volkswagen Tiquan 2.0 TDI Blue Motion, which posted sales of 5,500.

Kim predicts “a landmark year” of double-digit growth for 2014, noting BMW got off to a good start in January with 3,408 vehicles sold, the brand’s highest-ever single sales month in Korea. The KAIDA says BMW’s share of imported sales last month was 22.9%.

Trailing BMW by a wide margin in January was Mercedes, which sold 2,773 units, followed by VW (2,700) and Audi (2,137). With sales of 11,018 units among them, the four German marques in January held nearly 75% of the Korean imported-car market.