When the Dust Clears

It’s only with a good bit of hindsight can you see what has really happened. 

1995 Buick LeSabre: cardomain.com
1995 Buick LeSabre: cardomain.com

When I started writing about Opel and Buick my view of the relationship rested on the idea that if Opel could provide some useful platforms to Buick then that would be a good thing. I recently noted that not only are Buicks not wholly designed in America but in future may not be made there.

Two things have prompted this article. The first stems from some research I did into the 50 Best Cars Ever. That was a bit of a prolonged joke but yielded some surprising nuggets and it reminded me that random research can be very fruitful. I noticed when writing about the Saturn that the 1999 L-series was a rather botched modification of the Opel Vectra. It’s not a car I have thought much about as I don’t live in the US.

The other prompt is the ongoing discussion of Buick and Opel, specifically the launch of the Avista concept car. My ruminations on Opel have been confined to those Opels that turned up as Buicks. However, there are quite a few other Opels that have had American identities. The Kadett became a 1988 Pontiac LeMans via Daewoo. The 1997-2001 Cadillac Catera was a rebadged Opel Omega (95,000 sold!).

GM’s use of Opel donor cars intensified in the 00s as they ended what little autonomy Saturn had. The L-series of 1999 can be seen as the end of Saturn’s brief independent life. For this car, Saturn took an Opel Vectra as its base. The next Saturn, the Vue was a

2008 Saturn Aura: carandriver.com
2008 Saturn Aura: carandriver.com

rebadged Isuzu. Others were shared with Chevrolet and GMC. Their final cars were mostly Opels reworked to little or some extent: the Astra and the Aura which were an Opel Astra and a Vectra “C”. So, that’s the end of Saturn.

Now that Saturn were not there to beg for Opel cast-offs it became possible for GM to send these in the direction of Buick. As of today, five of Buick’s seven cars are redesigned Opels: the Verano, Cascada, the Regal, Lacrosse and Encore. The Lucerne of 2006-2011 appears to be the last Buick of the old –school. So in hindsight we can mark 2011 as the end of old Buick and its rebirth as a purveyor of upscale rebadged GM donor bodies.

These days the Lacrosse is the closest heir to the Lucerne. The difference is that the Lucerne was paired with the Cadillac DTS and the Lucerne is from a class down (it has Opel Insignia in there somewhere).

All this then makes sense of a detail you can see at Wikipedia. On the Saturn page. If you look to see which company succeeded Saturn the answer should be none. They closed it down. Someone has decided that Buick succeeded Saturn. Isn’t that satire or is it a fact?

2000 Saturn L-Series: wikipedia.org
2000 Saturn L-Series: wikipedia.org

Of course it’s not a disaster that GM makes use of some of Opel’s very good platforms. What is problematic is that in the saloon class, Opel’s lack of a US-scaled big vehicle means there is nothing Ruesselsheim can send to Detroit. I was hoping the traffic would reverse in the case of the Avenir concept which points in the direction of a possible nice, new, large Buick and Opel. And the Avista is not impossible to imagine as a new Monza.

What is dispiriting is the lack of effort to make real Buicks of the cars Opel provides. I like the Verano but it’s not especially Buick and the Encore, Envision and Enclave are just brougham trim variants of rather uninteresting parts-bin cars if you look at them uncharitably.

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

Some of this will be obvious if you live in the US. For me, the story is an object lesson in perspective and framing. If you look at Opel/Buick you get a different view than if you look at Opel and all of GM USA’s relations to it. The fate of Saturn changes the way one looks at how Buick is developing now. I did hope that there would be synergies between GM Europe and Buick but it seems really it’s just GM trying to do something, anything to use Opel’s engineering and to keep the semblance of a US presence for Buick in the US, if only and probably only because it matters to sales in China.

Author: richard herriott

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

21 thoughts on “When the Dust Clears”

  1. Richard, pardon me for being an ignorant barbarian. Please explain why where an international firm’s design centers are located matters. I don’t understand why a birthright barbarian like me should care whether GM designs cars intended for sale in the US here in the US, in Germany, or in Australia. By the way, aren’t GM’s US cars designed in Oz really from Russelsheim by way of Oz?

    1. The VE Commodore was not based on an Opel, unlike earlier models which all had substantial changes – increased size (excluding first gen), different drivetrains.

      Richard, platform sharing, everyone does it! VW is the prime example. I think the difference between a rebadged car vs rebodied is significant. Unless I’m mistaken there isn’t an Opel equivalent of the Lacrosse (which is paired with the Cadillac XTS). Yes the Insignia is related, but twas ever thus if you go back to the old days except the base then was a Chevy.

      Likewise the Verano is basically an Astra sedan primarily built for China as I understand, but the Chevrolet Cruze is a rebodied Astra with different rear suspension (or is it the other way around?).

      Pairing Opel and Buick makes sense to me, just like it does for Vauxhall.

  2. Hi Fred: don’t you like the idea of Buicks having more Detroit in them than the badge?
    I would hesitate to call you a barbarian unless you make your tea in a microwave, which I doubt.
    We actually quite like American cars here (except for the editor, Simon Kearne though I think he really prefers WW2 APCs).

    1. Richard, I’m not against GM designing cars to be sold in the US in, say, Detroit. I don’t care where they’re designed. “Detroit in them” is frightening. Detroit’s been frightening for decades.

      About being a barbarian, I don’t mean to insult you but you’re probably a barbarian too. Are you a native speaker of Greek? I’m not.

      As for liking American cars, that’s somewhat a matter of taste and somewhat a matter of distance from roads filled with them. Most are, to my taste, too large and their ratios of useful space to volume enclosed by sheet metal are too low. But tastes differ. If y’all like them, that’s fine with me.

  3. I would never get used to korean cars with a traditional american name – for a small-minded european person everything with more than 4 cylindres is a luxury car. So all american cars were luxury cars And they were equipped as european luxury cars.
    So every car coming from korea with an american name is a kind of implausible or unauthentic to me.

    And a new Buick Riviera coming from Korea – unimaginable!
    By the way – i really like the design of the last Riviera:

    1. Food for thought. Americans took to Lexus and Infiniti etc. Genesis probably see the US market as being where the main sales will be. This car will probably not do more than canter along as a provider of bonus sales to that small slice of European society that thinks like me but has way more money.
      About the Riviera: yes, agreed. Bill Porter the designer said it was a tough car to do. It was an exercise in clean curved surfaces and sharp panel boundaries… New Edge?
      Did you like the previous one?

    2. Markus, that’s a flattering photo. Have you ever seen one in the metal?

      When that model first came out I parked next to one. It seemed grotesque and ill-proportioned. Perhaps I looked at it from the wrong angle.

    3. OKay, it´s two against two here. I like it. White isn´t selling this car. In blue and metallic red it looks rather good. Remember what other 1995 cars looked like.

    4. The dominant ovoid theme of the 1990s never translated to big cars. The egg-shaped Taurus basically killed that model dead.

    5. I can’t really give a casting vote. It looks like a strange Photoshop distortion of some non-specific 90s Mazda. But nevertheless it’s oddly appealing. I’m surprised that Richard likes it since one thing I admire is its lack of the bright stuff.

  4. If only as a way of challenging the weasel concept of a World Car, a cynical way of saving costs that comes with the promise of uniting nations, stopping wars and ending famine, I’d rather see locally designed products.

    True that a 5 Series BMW will do the job on tarmac roads in any part of the World, and the situation 50 years ago where the reasonably small difference in size between the average US and UK citizen was not reflected by the huge difference in size between a Vauxhall Victor and a Chevrolet Impala, but a bit more diversity would be welcome.

  5. In today’s globalised market for both cars and jobs, the need for multiple “centres of excellence” (a horrid phrase) is vastly reduced. In this context, GM’s wholesale porting of Opels to Buick could be viewed as quite sensible, especially as their German outpost is turning out some very good cars. Chevrolet has also got its act together recently, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some traffic going the other way.

    1. US market concerns mean little to Buick now and the vitriol of TTAC commenters perhaps reflects that diminishing influence. I might be wrong, but I also gather that Regals produced for the US market in Canada from 20011 suffered from iffy quality, which exacerbated the vitriol somewhat.

  6. Fred: I am afraid they stopped classical languages at my school in the 1980s thus cutting me off from the roots of western civilisation. I have spent my time on earth since then trying to learn what my rotten school would not or could not teach me. Hence the deeper meaning of “barbarian” is lost on me.
    It´s very likely that my fondness for American cars is unhindered by much close-experience. By turns some of it was appalling and some of it inspired. That said, I´ve seen enough close up to know that in their own way they were charming and distinctive. Some of the nicest Buicks had these qualities and some of the more outre palaces of velour and chrome are pure entertainment. If Opel could design Buicky Buicks I would be happier. My regard for Buick is based on my preference for comfortable middle-market stuff and Buick allegedly provided comfortable-riding vehicles at a good price. I like that. It´s almost democratic. Lancia used to do that here too (sometimes and I miss them as well).
    Even if my Buick Century was built to a price, it turned out to be very reliable and that´s another factor underpinning my feelings. Had I had worse luck maybe I´d be cursing Buick today.

    1. Richard, nowadays the two quintessential American cars are, in alphabetical order, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry even though they’re not as floaty as old-style mid- to large-sized American cars. The Toyota Avalon/Lexus ES out-Buick Buick by a large margin.

  7. Hi Richard,

    I have been going back through the catalog reminiscing about when Opel/Vaxuhall first became a PSA brand (oh, how the times change) and this article reminded me of a few things I’d also been thinking about regarding Opel, Saturn, and Buick.

    Firstly, I have to offer the correction that the Vue (gen1) was far from an Isuzu rebadge (which Isuzu SUV would they even have used? none were unibody back then), but that’s a fact likely already elucidated by Daniel’s fine series on the Saturn story that was published earlier this year.

    More to the point, I personally thought at the time that Opel and Saturn were a perfect pairing. After the really crap Ion, the Astra H coming to the states was a real breath of fresh air, and the Vectra-sibling D-segment sedans (L-Series, Aura) were rather attractive, if somewhat confusing. I always wondered, especially with the Aura, why GM spent so much on bespoke body panels and whatnot just for the end result to look nearly identical to the Vectra C anyway. Why not a direct rebadge like the Astra or Vue gen2 (Opel Antara)? Overall, though, it seemed to fit the Saturn brand image. The original idea of Saturn was to offer a well-engineered, somewhat ‘import’ flavored product to supplement (or supplant, the goal was never really clearly defined) the more pedestrian and old-fashioned Chevrolet range of cars. So what if the space-frame and fiberglass panels were a thing of the past, selling rebadged Opels still maintained that air of ‘foreign sophistication’ that Saturn were theoretically aiming for even if the USP of ‘American designed and built’ became a thing of the past.

    Killing Saturn and Pontiac in ’08 still stands as one of the most bewildering GM decisions for me. With Buick they offered nearly the same cars as Cadillac (proof of how far Cadillac had fallen) and the rationale for them staying was essentially the same reason SAIC sold ‘MG’s’ in Britain: for Chinese buyers to feel more cred. I think Buick should have been made a China-only luxury brand and Saturn kept on as Opel rebadges, with Pontiac a different story (perhaps dedicated to just selling the Holden VE range in the states?) By keeping Buick and foisting all the Opel rebadges onto them instead, it created a massive cognitive dissonance for me; if Opel is the entry-level range in Europe, and Chevy is the entry-level range here, by badging Opels as Buicks doesn’t that automatically categorize Europe’s standards for entry-level as far higher than ours? To be fair, this was around the time of GM’s ill-advised Chevrolet Europe project which did create the hierarchy there too that Chevy was below Opel as they only sold really odd and crappy Daewoos. Still, my perception was that by getting rid of Saturn as an ‘alternative’ brand and giving the Opels to Buick, a ‘premium’ brand, it cheapened both Buick and Chevy, placing the former as equivalent to European entry-level (i.e. Volkswagen) and the latter as cheap and unsophisticated (i.e. Dacia).

    All that said, the LaCrosse does get a bit unfairly called an Opel-clone above; in reality, it is twinned with the USDM fourth-gen Chevy Impala and, while all based on Epsilon 2, those two are 200 mm longer than the Insignia/Regal and sport quite different bodywork and interiors. In fact, I walked past the last LaCrosse on my way to Trader Joe’s today and it is quite an imposing thing in top-level Avenir trim, if a little inauthentic in its Americanness:

    That’s certainly the closest you’ll get to your prized Park Avenues of old. Anyways, my long diatribe over, I did want to mention that elsewhere on the internet this prototype of a Zafira-sized MPV was found in Chicago for sale badged as a Buick, seemingly as a entry-level vehicle for the Chinese market. It would be curious to know its story, but unfortunately it seems like information about it online is minimal.


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