Buick Risks Its Credibility

Reuters have reported that in future most Buicks sold in the US may be imported.

1997 Buick Park Avenue Ultra. They don´t make them like this anymore: carponents.com
1997 Buick Park Avenue Ultra. They don´t make them like this anymore: carponents.com

Buick sell nearly a million cars a year in  China but only about 230,000 vehicles in the US. The basis of Buick’s credibility in China is that the car represents upper-middle class quality and American values. In the US, Buick appeals or has appealed for similar reasons. Sources close to GM are quoted as saying that in future only the LaCrosse replacement and the Enclave SUV will

1997 Buick Park Avenue: buysellsearch.com
1997 Buick Park Avenue. This was quite simply an excellent vehicle: buysellsearch.com

continue to be made in the US. The Cascada is made in Germany and the Encore comes from Korea (though may shift to China). Further muddying the water is that the main saloons in Buick’s bear a heavy resemblance to the Opels on which they are based. By and large the Buick range is a set of revised imports or designs related to non-Buick models whereas a decade ago, the Buick range was wholly American in style and content.

I would argue that Buick is in danger of risking first the American market. Customers for their cars tend to be brand loyalists for whom American-ness matters a great deal and who are quite likely to resent GM’s decision to shift production oversees in the light of the investment made during the crisis years to save the company. The labour unions are also going to be displeased for similar reasons.

As important as the American market is, the Chinese market is even more important. And this market depends on Buick’s all-American character. A large part of this depends on customers believing the cars they buy are related to the ones that are made in the US. For some years this will claim can carry some weight for Chinese customers. GM is gambling that with such a large customer base buying the cars for reasons unrelated to evocations of Park Avenues, Electras and Centuries, it won’t really matter if the cars are made in China, or for that matter, anywhere else.

It is a big gamble. The first loss will be Buick’s American customers which is unfortunate given the dramatic improvement in the cars they make in recent years.

2015 Buick Regal: GM USA
2015 Buick Regal: GM USA

I have shown a 1997 Buick Park Avenue above to illustrate this article rather than something newer. These are the kinds of cars Buick loyalists yearn for but which failed to be competitive in the US market place. It is unfortunate that for Buick to survive it is selling cars now that are very unBuick.

The situation is redolent of Lancia’s decline into being a purveyor of warmed-over Fiats; it must be noted that Lancia’s last vehicle, the Ypsilon is unique to Lancia and as recently as 2001 they had their own platform for the Thesis and that the 2008 Delta did not resemble any other Fiat product in the way the Buick Regal is a modified Opel Insignia and the Verano is a warmed-over Astra (albeit a very good warming over of a very good car).

In a perfect world, GM would be using stem-architecture to derive Opels for Europe and Buicks for the rest of the world and investing in at least one US-sourced, unique-bodied car to put a convincing gloss on Buick’s American credentials.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

21 thoughts on “Buick Risks Its Credibility”

  1. It’s only the next logical step after converting Chevrolet to a Korean brand.

  2. GM really has to get the flow of their platform stategy right. VAG is much better at taking a general platform and adjusting it to suit Seat, VW, Audi and Skoda. For the most part, the cars look and feel different. GM is still putting tops and tails on the same centre sections which is what ruined the brand distinctions in the 80s when Chevrolets, Buicks, Olds and Pontiacs were nigh on identical. The whole idea of shared platforms was to make it cheaper to differentiate brands. It is not to allow the serving up of the same thing with differing amounts of make-up

  3. Surely the only people who still worry about Buick’s credibility are long post-retirement age Americans and Richard Herriott. Whilst I wouldn’t dismiss the concerns of either of these groups, Buick’s major market just sees it as a brand, and doesn’t care where it comes from. Fiat has been doing well selling the Italian chic of the 500 for the past 8 years, and not one of those has ever seen the inside of an Italian factory.

    And of course the labour unions in the US only have clout whilst a US manufacturer actually builds cars in the US – which in some cases doesn’t look like it will be long.

  4. There´s a wider debate here, I guess. Keeping it to the matter of Buick, I suppose GM is being very pragmatic but also cynical. The great brands are built on real achievements and real facts about the world. Cadillac seem to half-realise this by seeking more independence inside GM and aiming for some stand-alone products. When it comes to the retirement demographic, one must remember it never goes away. There are always more retirees to replace the ones who enter post-retirement. At the same time there are also people who want a Buicky Buick. At the moment Hyundai are selling V8s to this crowd and doing quite well. The Genesis is precisely what these people want apart from lackign a Tri-Shield. If I were GM I´d be selling products for this crowd rather than letting their business go to Korea.
    I think there are quite a lot more under-50s who want a Buick-type of car. I can´t be the only one.

    1. “I think there are quite a lot more under-50s who want a Buick-type of car. I can´t be the only one.”

      Are you sure? The US is a large country. I live in a region that may be aberrant but I see no sign of it locally. I have a poor sense of what young folks in flyover country want but I have the impression they’re buying pickup trucks. The youngsters in our extended family want nothing to do with anything from GM. Yes, I know, they’re a small sample and probably a bad one.

      Even worse, in the depths of my great old age I find nothing appealing, let alone safe to own after the warranty expires, in the GM line. Where I live the Toyota Avalon and equivalent Lexus are seen as superior replacements for the huge cars GM used to sell with Buick badges. And there’s a problem for GM.

    2. Hi: thanks for your post. It seems my fond imaginings about Buick are not based on fact. It could be that an Avalon is more like the kind of car I’d prefer – such a pity as Buick made some very tasty vehicles in the late 80s and 90s. I loved the Buick style. I must look up what Avalon has to offer….

    3. Fred. I know that Richard has a strong attachment to Buick, for reasons he can only explain. I have a soft spot for them too, but that goes back to pre-shrinkage Rivieras and an Electra I drove in 1979.

      Even if you rely on the silver marketplace, the problem with older people is that they just don’t conform to type anymore – a problem that both Rover and Jaguar found over here when they were trying to tap into the pipe and slippers market.

      It’s a pity. Even when we, in Europe, considered that the dynamics of most big Yanks were eccentric (to put it politely) there were many cars in GM’s range that I could still look on with a degree of admiration.

    4. But did you buy a Buick because you liked the brand, or do you like the brand because you once owned one? I’ve owned two Fiats, with mixed feelings about both since neither was perfect. But this has left me with a fondness for the brand that it doesn’t really deserve any more. And all the more so for the three major French brands. Which brings us back to Citroen, as always.

      I’ve just looked at the Avalon. It seems fine, so fine you wonder why Buick would bother competing. It sounds like too much hard work. But it’s hardly ‘a radical drive’ as Toyota label it. Why do they say rubbish like that? It doesn’t appear to be the sort of car that would attract drivers who even wanted to be thought of as ‘radical’.

    5. The Buick was what was going at that precise point in time. But that said, I ended up liking it for its robust dependability if not for its seats. The bench seat was okay but lacked lumbar support. The car could carry six people and lots of luggage. Such a car would suit Denmark because the speeds limits are so draconian.
      Toyota want to do for the Avalon what every car company wants to do, which is make it something its customers don´t want it to be. It ought not to be overtly radical. I wish they´d focus on the controls and refinement and stop with the expressive design. I like expressive desgin in its place. The Avalon doesn´t need it. Says the man who owns a Citroen XM.

    6. “Expressive” is not a term that springs to my mind when I think about the XM. When I hear this word, I see large grilles (the more the better), ditto wheels, odd-shaped chrome bits (the pointier the better), headlights and lamp clusters covering large areas and having shapes resembling the Norvegian coastline.

      The XM is not exactly a wallflower, but still of the calmer type. Or was it perceived very differently 25 years ago? I mean outside the German motoring press who had to attribute the usual “quirky” and “exotic” that is mandatory for every French car, even if it’s as bland as a Peugeot 301.

  5. It must be nice for GM to be able to sell products to a market unfettered by brand perception. With our shit-tinted glasses removed for one moment, it is easy to see that the current Opel/Vauxhall line up is the strongest for years, with well built and crisply styled offerings in every segment, all sold at reasonable prices. This is what the Chinese are “buying into” with a Buick: a good car styled to their tastes.

    1. The Opel range is not just relatively but absolutely the best set of cars they have ever fielded. I wish that GM would realise that Europe needs Opels, the US needs proper US-style Buicks and China needs whatever the heck it is they think a Buick is. Right now the US Buick range is becoming expedient. For a while I was taken in and then I realised that there are no more uniquely American Buicks, just tweaked products from other parts of the GMpire.

    2. Chris. Richard wrote this interesting piece about Buick a while ago. He pointed out that the Buick brand actually did have an historical significance to the Chinese, going back to pre-Revolution times. So they have brand preconceptions too, just not same ones that creaky kneed US buyers have, nor the same ones that VAG worshipping Europeans do.

      Whether the badged Opels they are buying now live up to the fantasy vehicles their great grandparents told them about is open to question, but as you say they are very decent cars and deserve to be judged accordingly.


  6. Further to Fred´s comments I went and had a look at what Toyota´s Avalon is like. Indeed it is often called Toyota´s Buick. It had bench seating available until two models ago (and I wish it still had these). The latest version is even rated quite highly among the FWD large cars though TTAC is of a mixed opinion. On the one hand they call it an appliance but also acknowledge it is very good at what it does. It just doesn´t look like a Buick. The last Buicky Buick seems to have been the Lucerne which was replaced by the Lacrosse.
    As it stands, the Avalon seems to get my vote for being as close to the Buick formula of a smooth-riding large car. I wish it did not look so appalling at the front. The last Avalon is thrillingly bland whereas the current car has what looks like two grille concepts fighting for supremacy.

    1. Only two grille concepts? That’s not much for a 2015 car.

  7. At the time the XM was considered “gothic” and “awkward” by some though also elegant. I think it has a strong shape with a clear character and compared to a Thema or 100 or 5-series is very expressive (and pointy). Today it seems calm, that’s true.

    1. You made a point. I might be too young to really remember the XM’s reception at the time.

    2. I was 17 when the XM came out so I too was on the younger side. In the interim I harvested all the reviews in print to see what was the prevailing view. The XM polarised opinion and also that was considered entirely appropriate for the brand. Looking at the alternatives, the Bertone design looks like the best one though I am comparing a fully realised design with sketches of the other proposals. Opron´s offerings were as clearly derivative of the CX as the C6 was, for example. What is interesting is the Citroen flourishes that accumulated on the car, distinguishing it from Bertone´s first models.

    3. Thanks for the research! It’s only 2 years difference then. I don’t have any printed stuff left from this time, and I think whatever memory I have of what I read as a 15 year old might be blurred by the years I have spent since – surrounded by Citroën people who certainly don’t represent the majority’s (or the press’s) opinion on the XM.

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