2009 BMW 3-Series

2009 BMW 3-Series

Though it's only 20 years old this week, Toyota's Lexus luxury brand has grown with shocking speed to become the best seller in the U.S. But thanks to the downturn in the economy, the gap between Lexus and its closest rival, BMW, has narrowed to just a few thousand cars, and BMW may be on pace to overtake the upstart Japanese brand.

As of August, BMW has sold 129,176 vehicles while Lexus has sold 131,469, according to The Detroit News. That's a huge drop from pre-recession figures of over 300,000 cars per year for Lexus, but as the market has shrunk, BMW has picked up share in the luxury segment, and is now ready to take the title Lexus has held for the past 9 years.

"We're really breathing down Lexus' neck," said BMW North America CEO Jim O'Donnell. In fact, BMW was actually slightly ahead of Lexus through June, but the figures swung back in Lexus' favor in July.

BMW's shot at taking down the luxury giant is likely to be short-lived, however. Already signs are beginning to point to a recovery in the economy and the car market, meaning that the demand for luxury cars that has been pushed back over the past year will come bursting forth.

As past sales have proved, that demand will likely flow to Lexus, not BMW, but if any of the market share gained during the downturn sticks, BMW's longer-term sales may rise as well. New models - controversial as they may be - like the 5-series GT and the recently-released ActiveHybrid X6 and 7-series could help spur sales further when they hit the market next year.