• May 10, 2010
Buick Back?

Later this month I'll be heading out to San Diego to get my first ride in the new Buick Regal. It's a trip I'm looking forward to, something I couldn't have said about most of the Buick product previews I've attended over the course of my 30 years on the auto beat.

Let's face it: Since the days of the classic Riviera, the long-struggling General Motors division didn't have a lot to offer other than "badge-engineered" products that appealed to a limited core audience of aging Buick buyers. One GM wag once suggested that the average age of the division's buyers was "nearly dead." And as that audience steadily dwindled, so was Buick.

Consider that over the quarter century from 1984 to 2009, Buick sales plunged nearly 90% from 941,611 to just 102,300 and you understand why so many industry analysts began urging GM to abandon the Buick brand long before last year's bankruptcy. Yet when the ashes of the century-old automaker rose like a phoenix last July, Buick remained among the four surviving North American "core" brands.

To understand why, I just need to talk with an old friend, Al Abramson, a long-time dealer in Asian art, jewelry and antiques, and one of the first Westerners to go behind the so-called Bamboo Curtain after the fateful meeting between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong.


Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

Somehow, Abramson became close to the widow of Chou En-Lai, Mao's second-in-command until he was killed in a plane crash. Taking my friend into the garage of their home, widow Chou revealed her husband's prize possession, an ancient Buick sedan that, in turn, had been owned and coveted by China's last emperor.

When GM went to Beijing a little more than a decade ago asking permission to set up a factory, Chinese bureaucrats had no interest in Chevrolets or even Cadillacs. The plant, they demanded, had to build bureaucrats. I'm tempted to suggest that "the rest is history," but I hate cliches. Suffice it to say that with Buick as its lead brand, GM is locked in a bitter battle with Volkswagen for sales supremacy in China, now the world's largest automotive market.

Why does Buick survive? "In a word: China."
More significantly, Buick sales in that fast-growing market now readily exceed those here at home, reaching 447,011 last year. So, no surprise when I recently asked GM design chief Ed Welburn why Buick survives and he told me, "In a word: China." It would be difficult to explain to Chinese consumers, Welburn continued, why one of their favorite brands can't survive in the U.S. market.

The bigger irony is the fact that driven by the fierce competition in China, recent Buick products have finally started to become more than just clones of other GM models. The LaCrosse is one great example. As analyst Stephanie Brinley of AutoPacific Inc. puts it, the sedan is "quiet and comfortable, but instead of just being a floating yacht, they've recognized people want more involvement in their vehicle."

There are plenty of folks who find that hard to believe – if they pay attention to Buick at all. It was a hard sell when I filed a Top-Ten-for-'10 story with one of my various media outlets and had to convince a seriously skeptical editor that the LaCrosse really was the best new near-luxury sedan.

But the needle is beginning to move. The mid-size sedan has been exceeding even Buick's optimistic expectations, with LaCrosse sales climbing steadily for seven months and hitting their highest retail mark in April. Sales for the year are up 214%. Meanwhile, demand for the big Enclave SUV has been building, as well.

I'm looking forward to driving the new Regal to see whether these are two flukes or a sign of a significant shift in the market. For his part, Buick General Manager Brian Sweeney believes the brand will "double our sales in the next few years."

Analyst Brinley agrees, as AutoPacific data forecasts volumes will surge to 201,400 by 2013. Now, that number has to be put in context with the overall U.S. market recovery. So, she says, Buick share will only rise from last year's 1.0, a far cry from the brand's peak.

Another hit with the Regal could rewrite automotive history.
What will it take to get there? New product, certainly. The maker recently announced plans for a small sedan and a compact crossover to follow the launch of the Regal. Insiders, meanwhile, suggest that a larger crossover sharing the GM Theta platform is also on tap. Together, such offerings would put a Buick into the running for half of all U.S. buyers.

But expect that China will continue to play a lead role in the development of many, if not most, of those products. The good news is that Buick buyers there may be even more fussy than those Stateside, resulting in better use of materials, more features, and more room – especially in the back seat – than Buicks past.

As for where these new buyers will come from, well, that's always a challenge. Buick is targeting Lexus, a move that might have seemed futile not long ago, but the ongoing safety problems at Toyota – which have tarnished all the Japanese maker's brands – could provide an opening. And it certainly hasn't hurt Buick as it climbs in the quality charts, even surpassing Lexus in a recent J.D. Power reliability study.

Barely two years ago, it seemed highly unlikely Buick would have a long-term future. While it's still too early to conclude it has achieved a turnaround, there's little doubt its momentum has turned and is pointing in the right direction. Another hit with the Regal could rewrite automotive history.


Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.


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  • 16 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      i am a graduate from china majoring in automotive engineering BUICK is really a hot brand for most chinese, the analysis that FM kept buick for china is plausible. so many people are becoming the mid-class, the have a strong desire for cars. ok, there is a fact you should not overlooking: the price of the cars in china is much more higher compared with that in us or europe. EG you use 20000usd to buy a mini cooper, in china the price is 50 thousand. so the profit for the makers is huge
      • 4 Years Ago
      They should have used the Kappa platform to make a new Reatta.
      • 4 Years Ago
      i am a BUICK is really a hot brand for most chinese, the analysis that FM kept buick for china is plausible. so many people are becoming the mid-class, the have a strong desire for cars. ok, there is a fact you should not overlooking: the price of the cars in china is much more higher compared with that in us or europe. EG you use 20000usd to buy a mini cooper, in china the price is 50 thousand. so the profit。。。
      • 4 Years Ago
      It should be pointed out the 1984 lineup compared to the 2009. GM gave Buick 15 models that year, only 3 this year

      1984 Buick lineup 2009 Buick lineup
      electra/park avenue Lacrosse sedan
      electra coupe Enclave
      lesabre Lucerne sedan
      estate wagon
      lesabre coupe
      regal coupe
      century wagon
      century sedan
      skylark coupe
      skylark sedan
      skyhawk coupe
      skyhawk sedan
      skyhawk wagon
      Riviera
      riviera convertible
      • 4 Years Ago
      Re-write automotive history?

      What, the bullcrap that they did before will somehow magically be reversed, in some sort of sci-fi timeline shifting weirdness?

      The only reason Buick is doing anything in the US is because Saturn and Pontiac were summarily canned, and Toyota took a giant PR hit at a very fortuitous time.

      Some 4-cylinder Regals and a couple of other mid-level FWD sedans isn't exactly ground-breaking new products.

      Merely not tanking as bad as they were last year or the year before is good news, but it hardly means that everything is completely different for GM now.

      "re-writing history..." I always get nervous about people saying that... because usually they want to cover up the historical truth with a fictional past.
        • 4 Years Ago
        You called for me to be blocked from Autoblog. That is censorship.

        The way you wrote your previous post, you didn't say you wanted a way to ignore me... which you don't need technology in order to do... you can just skip any text with my alias on it.

        Your post called for me to be BLOCKED. That is censorship, based solely on your opinion.

        And it is no different than revisionism, or the rule of men over other men, whether that be a small or large instance. If you don't see that, it is your ignorance, not my problem.

        I disagree with pretty much everything you, and some others post. Not once have I called for you or anyone else to be blocked from posting.
        • 4 Years Ago
        So what if it's merely because Saturn and Pontiac were "summarily canned," as you put it. First of all, you should have left your point at Saturn... Pontiac had little to do with the situation. Regardless... GM decided to stick with it's oldest, cornerstone brand as opposed to Saturn - which by the way, had trouble turning a profit since it's inception.

        Bottom line... Who give's a flying rat's arse why they're now getting the vehicles they're getting? By all accounts, they're genuinely good products that are finally able to go head to head with those offerings from the Japanese.

        Christ on a cracker... Since when is real competition a bad thing? Get over it and move on...
      • 4 Years Ago
      The Buick badge has so much potential, and it pleases me that GM is willing to revive it.

      All we need is a 2-door and we're golden...!!
      • 4 Years Ago
      Good thing that "recent Buick products have finally started to become more than just clones of other GM models"

      I'm really looking forward to that new Opel, I mean Buick Regal.
        • 4 Years Ago
        as has been pointed out a million times before.... they are in different f-ing markets!
      • 4 Years Ago
      The new GS is gonna save Buick fo sho
      • 4 Years Ago
      Buick may never get back to 1M/year (until the population really grows), but they have some nice models now, and hopefully the new models will be as good or better.

      It was obvious to almost everyone that GM kept Buick for China. When an emerging market already outsells the home market for that brand, Pontiac was doomed. Now GM can offer nearly the same thing offered in China. Lower costs, higher profits.

      Buick still needs a 2-dr (like the Riv concept) to fill out their supposed model line, but for sedans they may be set in the near future.
        • 4 Years Ago
        alex,

        Which is rather disingenuous as other than the Lucerne, Buick USA sells exactly two cars, the Buick Traverse - by far the weakest selling Lambda - and the Buick Insignia.

        Buick China does not need Geezer USA for product.

        • 4 Years Ago
        Dan, the soon to be extinct lucerne is the only buick sold in the US that isn't sold in China. So there goes your point.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I have heard this explanation many times but still don't understand why the Chinese market requires GM to keep dumping money into a dead brand on another continent.

        Buick China doesn't share most models with US Buick. There are rebadged Opels, Daewoos, Pontiacs, even a G8.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'm saving my money right now for a Buick Regal GS "Sport Wagon." It would go a long way to balancing out the epic boring ride provided by "the family car" Toyota Camry I drive right now.

      Don't disappoint me GM!
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