NEW YORK – With a U.S. market share just shy of 2%, BMW has a lot of room to grow without losing its high-end panache, says Ludwig Willisch, president of BMW North America.

“We certainly plan to be distinctive,” Willisch tells WardsAuto in an interview at the New York International Auto Show. “Even if we doubled (U.S. share), we'd still be very exclusive.”

BMW has achieved a 9% share in some countries, but he expects the German marque to remain upmarket in the U.S. for at least the next decade.

BMW’s claim to the top spot in the U.S. premium segment last year is borne out by WardsAuto data, although Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. President Steve Cannon says registration numbers from R.L. Polk for 2012 indicate otherwise.

Willisch denies BMW engaged in any underhanded tactics, such as including demonstrator and loaner cars in its sales totals, to inflate its 2012 results. “Our sales figures are based on reports from our dealers,” he says. “The numbers are solid.”

Regarding Cannon’s charges, Willisch says, “Nobody is happy losing.”

The BMW chief is confident about the brand’s prospects this year. Besides overall U.S. market strength and “a nice influx of new models,” he expects a sales boost from a new 4-cyl. diesel engine in the 328d that debuts in August.

Diesels hold promise because of growing sensitivity to fuel prices, and eventually they could account for 10% of BMW sales here, he says. The only diesel in the current portfolio is in the X5 cross/utility vehicle.

Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles could represent 5% to 15% of BMW’s portfolio by 2020, Willisch says, adding he has great confidence in the i3 and i8 PHEVs that will be introduced before then. He expects early adopters and fans of advance design to be first in line for the futuristic cars. He also thinks buyers may have more household income and a better education than today’s BMW customers.

For the present, Willisch sees more opportunities for the smaller cars in BMW’s lineup, noting the X1 compact luxury CUV boasts a 75% conquest rate. Most of the sales come from owners of Japanese brands, Volkswagen and Ford’s Focus.

BMW deliveries are improving in South America, a region Willisch also heads. Although the market is much smaller than in the U.S, he predicts big things for Brazil, now the world’s fourth-largest car market. The auto maker is building another factory there.

BMW doesn’t benchmark rival auto makers, “but we take every competitor very seriously,” Willisch says. “We follow a path that we define ourselves, with a strategy of being ahead of the game than a follower.”