The Mercedes-Benz brand, with 2.08m sales in 2016, topped archrival BMW's 2,003,359 four years ahead of a target set by Daimler's CEO, according to Reuters, after it stopped chasing market share and focused on making stylish high-tech cars loved by consumers.

Introducing an elegant, sporty design and establishing itself as a pioneer in new technologies like autonomous driving has helped revive the Mercedes brand which analysts say will help keep the Stuttgart-based carmaker ahead of the pack, the news agency noted.

Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche has struggled to revive the company following a messy divorce from Chrysler in 2007. Less than four years ago, he faced restive shareholders, worried that the automaker was lagging behind BMW and Audi.

"We had some deficits, cost and quality problems. Design was not top-notch. And with Chrysler we were no longer a pure premium carmaker," Zetsche told Reuters in an interview held late in 2016 in his office at Daimler's headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

Including sales of the Smart brand, Daimler sold 2.23m passenger cars last year, the company told Reuters. BMW claimed its BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce total tally of 2,367,603 maintained its position "as the world's leading premium car company with its three brands". Including the Smart brand, Daimler sold 2.23m passenger cars last year, it told Reuters.

The news agency said Zetsche had presided over a renaissance in the design and technology of Mercedes vehicles, refocused the company on technological superiority instead of short-term sales goals, and adapted the entrepreneurial mindset of Silicon Valley to the traditionally risk averse culture of Stuttgart.

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He set the goal of making Mercedes the best-selling luxury carmaker by 2020 at the company's 125th anniversary in 2011, a year when even Audi sales overtook those of Mercedes, pushing it into third place.

"Since then we worked hard and today we are leading or among the leaders when it comes to innovation, quality, design and security," Zetsche said.

BMW Group sales set another record in 2016, the sixth year in a row. All three brands' volume rose 5.3% to 2,367,603.

Sales and marketing head Ian Robertson said in Detroit: "Despite headwinds in some markets, our policy of balanced global sales has paid off, as we increased our worldwide sales month by month."

BMW brand sales rose 5.2% to a record 2,003,359 with one in three being an X vehicle.

Mini sales rose 6.4% to a record 360,233.

Rolls-Royce sales of 4,011 units (+6.0%) were the second highest in the brand's history. 

Annual sales of BMW and Mini in Europe topped the million mark for the first time  with 1,091,192 vehicles delivered, an increase of 9.2%.