If the automotive industry is a barometer for the overall economy, there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon in 2011. For most mainstream manufacturers, 2011 sales were up, but it was a mixed bag for players in the the luxury segment.

If we had to recap 2011 luxury car sales in five words or less, they would be, “It’s good to be German.” BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Porsche all enjoyed record sales, but the news wasn’t nearly as good for their Japanese rivals.

In terms of unit sales, BMW pushed the most tin in 2011, racking up sales of some 305,418 units, an increase of 14.9 percent from 2010. Next up was Mercedes-Benz, who sold some 264,460 units last year, growing sales by an impressive 17.5 percent from the previous year.

Audi’s plan for eventual segment dominance appears to be on track, as it sold 117,561 units here in 2011, a growth of 15.7 percent. Even Porsche managed to sell 29,023 vehicles on these shores last year, which represents a gain of 15 percent for the Stuttgart-based automaker.

On the other side of the world, the news wasn’t nearly as good. Lexus retained its position as the number one Japanese luxury brand, selling 198,553 vehicles. That didn’t match its sales in 2010, and overall the brand was down by 13.7 percent in 2011. Acura was also down year on year, selling 123,299 units for a loss of 8 percent.

At Infiniti, it was more of the same. Nissan’s premium brand sold 98,461 units, declining by 4.8 percent compared to last year. The twin disasters in Japan almost certainly played a role in the decline of Japanese premium brands in 2011, so it’s reasonable to expect substantial gains from these automakers in 2012.

On the domestic front, Cadillac grew sales by 3.7 percent, moving 152,389 units, while Lincoln didn’t quite measure up to 2010’s numbers. Ford’s premium brand saw sales shrink by 0.2 percent, selling just 85,643 vehicles.

We’re not prophets and we aren’t very good at reading tea leaves, but this much seems clear to us: in 2012, expect the Japanese brands to be back with a vengeance, which will force the German brands to work that much harder for market share.

We’d be surprised if Cadillac didn’t improve next year as well. There’s a lot riding on the successful launch of the ATS sedan, which could significantly grow sales for GM’s luxury brand. Lincoln leaves us scratching our heads, and we hope that Ford is able to execute on a turnaround strategy for it’s luxury marque in the coming year.