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As it seeks to close the gap with the competition, luxury automaker Audi AG introduced on Monday lighter, more fuel-efficient versions of SUVs during the North American International Auto Show.

In a world premiere, the German automaker, which is a subsidiary of Volkswagen Group, offered up a refreshed version of its three-row, seven-passenger 2016 Q7 SUV, weighing 716 pounds lighter than the previous generation. This has been achieved by a body made of a mix of aluminum and steel and an all-new chassis.

Company leaders touted the SUV segment as an important part of the future of the brand.

"Every vehicle helps us, but the CSUV segment is one of our biggest segments," said Luca De Meo, a member of the board of sales and marketing for Audi. "In fact, the Q7 increased in the last year of its life cycle, after nine years. It shows that the segment is very healthy."

Audi has said consumers will have four engines to choose from in the U.S., including a plug-in hybrid that uses a diesel engine. The vehicle's price starts at $48,300.

"This is a very modern interpretation of an SUV product," said De Meo. "It's what people want in an SUV, but it drives like an A6 or A8."

The automaker also had a U.S. premiere for the Audi Q3, touting more powerful engines that have reduced emissions by 17 percent. The Q3 starts at $32,500.

The reveals come after a record sales year for Germany's luxury carmakers, thanks to expanding sales in the U.S. and China.

BMW AG kept hold of first place, selling 1.81 million vehicles worldwide in 2014. That was an increase of 9.5 percent over 2013.

That put it ahead of Audi brand, which increased sales by 10.5 percent to 1.74 million vehicles. Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz was third with 1.65 million vehicles sold, up 12.9 percent.

Audi had a fifth consecutive record year for sales in the U.S. in 2014, selling 182,011 vehicles, Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, said during the automaker's press conference Monday afternoon. He said the company expects another record sales year in 2015.

Audi said it sells more than 85 percent of its cars in global markets. One in 3 Audi models sold is a Q model (SUV).

The competition wasn't shying away Monday. BMW revealed a revamped 6-series model available as a two-door coupe, a convertible or a four-door Gran Coupe at the Detroit show.

The fall of the value of the euro against the dollar has put these automakers in an interesting position when selling in the U.S. The price advantage means Americans will need less money to buy them, or the companies can use that difference in price to add more features.

Luxury car sales rose 4.5 percent in 2014, while non-luxury car sales were basically flat. The biggest growth segment for luxury vehicles was in small luxury-crossover/SUV sales, which were up 19 percent, said auto research firm Kelley Blue Book.

lrazzaq@detroitnews.com

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