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% to 1.4%, 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.

Share This Photo X