Buick Riviera Concept Will Morph into Next LaCrosse

January 11, 2008
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It’ll be worth taking a second – and closer – look at the Buick Riviera concept car when it makes its North American debut at the upcoming Detroit Auto Show. First seen in Shanghai last summer, it’s likely to get crowded out of the headlines by first-time previews, such as General Motors’ own Corvette ZR1. But ignoring the sleek and sexy coupe would be a serious mistake.

That’s because you’ll be seeing it yet again before year’s end in somewhat modified form, TheCarConnection.com has learned, when the next-generation Buick LaCrosse makes its own debut.

It’s all part of GM’s plan to revive the long-struggling Buick division, a brand that many outsiders have felt the automaker should excise entirely from its lineup. But with Buick’s strong success in China – and a new, global product development system – GM is convinced it can bring Buick back.

There’s no question times have been rough. Last year, after years of steady decline, more Buick-badged vehicles were sold in China than the United States. Looking at it a different way, that helped propel GM to the No. 1 sales spot in the rapidly expanding Chinese motor vehicle market.

The brand’s success in China “came at the same time the perception of Buick in the U.S. was at its lowest,” says Dave Lyon, until recently GM’s Asian design chief, and now head of all interior styling. It was easy to say “maybe we shouldn’t put more money in the brand,” Lyon adds, but then GM switched from a regional to a global product development system. Suddenly, feeding the Chinese demand for Buicks made it a lot easier to expand the U.S. product portfolio, as well.

Once upon a time, Buick was seen as the “doctor’s car,” in the step-up hierarchy of General Motors, a luxury line one step south of the vaunted Cadillac. In today’s world, GM sees it more directly targeting the likes of Lexus, the uber-successful luxury line from Toyota.

A few years ago, such a bold strategy would have seemed laughable, but there are suddenly some signs Buick could pull it off. The new Enclave SUV has been the biggest success the brand has had in years, cracking a tough market and luring in the sort of young and affluent buyers Buick desperately needs. About 44 percent of Enclave owners traded in non-GM products.

The Enclave has won a series of raves and awards, and over the weekend, we’ll see whether it adds another, as it’s a finalist in the closely watched North American Truck of the Year balloting, the results of which will be announced at the Detroit Auto Show.

The Riviera concept - seen above with GM global design director Ed Welburn - has also earned some serious acclaim, as it should, considering the nameplates long and heralded heritage. The show car was designed by PATEC, a GM design operation based in Shanghai. But while there are some subtle Asian details, look closely and you’ll see a modern interpretation of the classic Buick design cues, starting with the oval waterfall grille, the sweeping side lines that kick up into a muscular haunch, and of course, those portholes no Buick would be complete without.

In production form as the next LaCrosse, the prototype will give up the gullwings and gain an additional two conventional doors. The “Shanghai by night” interior will be toned down a fair degree, but the overall resemblance will be obvious and, insiders insist, striking. The cabin will boast a much more Lexus-like look, rather than the cheesy plastic feel that unfortunately characterized Buick products of the last two decades.

“It will be one killer LaCrosse,” promises Lyon.

GM’s reborn styling department is clearly scoring points. But looks alone won’t be enough, especially for such a damaged brand as Buick. The good news is that the division’s focus on quality is paying off. In recent surveys, notably those from J.D. Power and Associates, Buick is rivaling – and even besting – the vaunted Lexus in both initial and long-term reliability.

Of course, the challenge will be to get those who’ve long ignored Detroit sheetmetal to start paying attention again. But with products as striking as the Riviera concept, it won’t be that difficult.

GM Wows China – But Still Fixing America, Progress in Asia won’t distract hometown turnaround. by TCC Team (2007-04-23)

2007 Buick Riviera Concept Car. Live from Shanghai - the future of Buick? by TCC Team (4/19/2007)

2008 Buick Enclave Road Test . The best Buick ever? by Gary Witzenburg (2007-05-29)

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