The chief of BMW AG's U.S. operations predicts an optimistic future for the recession-battered premium-vehicle sector, forecasting low double-digit growth for this year and the following two years.

Sales could grow even more after that, he says, especially as the large emerging markets of China and India begin to create millions of affluent consumers hungry for luxury.

But Jim O'Donnell, president of BMW of North America LLC, cautions today's — and tomorrow's — luxury consumer is changing, and premium vehicles will have to adapt to new values and perceptions about what makes a luxury car.

“In 10 years, premium automobiles will be desired for more than size and stature,” he says. “Premium vehicles in a wider range of sizes will be desired for the emotional experience. They will be desired not for how fast they go but how they feel.”

And that includes BMW. O'Donnell says the ultimate driving machine may not always be defined by its flawless internal-combustion engines in the future. The days of selling 16-, 12- or even 8-cyl. engines as ultra-luxury cars may be numbered.

“At BMW, we will not be selling cylinders,” he says.

“Former 12-cyl. performance already comes from 8-cyls.; 8-cyl. performance comes from 6-cyls. And 4-cyl. (engines) could become 3-cyls.,” he says. “But if our customers want an 8-cyl., we should have one and will.”

The typical premium vehicle likely will be smaller, and it simply will not have some technology and design cues that signal today's uber vehicles, O'Donnell says. “It will no longer be about the number of cylinders, or cylinders at all, perhaps. But rather how what's under the hood performs and how it provides a seamless driving experience.”

O'Donnell points to a concept car called Vision EfficientDynamics. It features a 3-cyl., diesel hybrid powertrain that travels 0-60 mgh (100 km/h) in 4.8 seconds but achieves roughly 62 mpg (3.8 L/100 km) and emits just 99 g/km of carbon dioxide.