2012 Buick: Is GM Building an American Lexus?

August 11, 2009

If you're reading this article in 2012, congratulations. Thanks to the miracle of Google search, Web longevity and ultra-fast fiber-optics, you already know if the renaissance that started in the summer of 2009 at Buick was successful.

From our perspective, here in the dark ages of 2009, Buick has a long way to go. Along with the rest of GM and the auto industry in general, the brand is hoping for a miracle in sales, and not just a ground-rule double like the current sales spurt coming from the Feds' cash-for-clunkers program.

Recovery starts with admitting what you've done wrong. And today, Buick general manager Susan Docherty pointed out what GM and Buick had done wrong in the past--mostly, trying to feed too many brands with too few products.

At a special event in Detroit, Docherty took TheCarConnection off the digital record for a backgrounder on the Buick lineup we'll see in place in 2012--and shone a little sunlight on the brand's intentions, now that's it's part of the "core four" nameplates making the migration into the New GM.

Docherty points to the latest new Buicks for clues to the future. For 2010, the oldest GM brand already has a taste of what's to come, in the 2010 Buick LaCrosse. Built alongside the Chevrolet Malibu in Fairfax, Kan., the LaCrosse has been called an "American Lexus" by the Los Angeles Times. High Gear Media's own Nelson Ireson reports "fans of Lexus, Acura and Infiniti...will find themselves envious of the solid construction, (mostly) whisper-quiet ride and superior switchgear found in the LaCrosse."

It's a good start to a renaissance, along with the 2008 Buick Enclave seven-passenger crossover. It's far from "mission accomplished," though--the mission being beating Lexus in quality, a mission assigned by GM's Bob Lutz when he joined the automaker early in the decade. GM's rollercoaster ride since then has delayed new vehicles and canceled others, leaving Buick with just three cars for this model year--LaCrosse, Enclave and Lucerne.

What's missing? More core products, more small vehicles and hybrids. Over the next 24 months, Buick will add two new sedans and two new crossovers to beef up its showrooms, and each will be smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles than Buick buyers may be used to seeing behind the triple-shield badge.

When you venture into a Buick showroom in 2012, Docherty says, here's the lineup you'll see:

Buick LaCrosse: The brand-new LaCrosse is positioned as the mainstream large sedan, the Buick Lucerne aside. With a choice of four- and six-cylinder engines and a suave new shape, the LaCrosse goes on sale shortly.

Buick Enclave: By 2012 the seven-passenger Enclave will be the oldest vehicle in the Buick lineup. A mid-cycle refresh could appear in the next 24 months, though no major changes have been confirmed.

Mid-size sedan: The Opel Insignia had been planned as a new addition to the Saturn lineup; with Saturn out of the GM picture, the new four-door is being adapted by Buick. The side strakes in the doors are unmistakable Insignia cues, but Buick details like the waterfall grille have been added. Designers are on the fence about putting portholes on the fenders or the hood. It's a little more anodyne than, say, the Chrysler 300--and it's specifically targeting a Lexus shopper as a result.

Compact sedan: The Buick version of the compact 2011 Chevrolet Cruze turns out very well. With a deep waterfall grille, portholes on the hood (not the side of the fenders, really, but the top), a roofline kink that BMW owners might mistake for their own, and a very smoothly integrated shape, the compact sedan's biggest challenge will be telling it apart from the mid-size car.

Small crossover: a version of the Saturn Vue with a Buick grille, the crossover gets a plug-in hybrid powertrain not long after it's launched in the 2011 calendar year.

Compact crossover: An all-new architecture underpins this small crossover, which bears a strong resemblance to a drastically shortened Enclave. It could be related to the new 2011 Chevrolet Orlando, but execs were not forthcoming about its underpinnings.

Buick also showed sketches of a concept four-door coupe. Designers say it's an evolution of the Buick Riviera and Invicta concepts shown in past years at China's auto shows, but it's clearly still in the vaporware stage, probably waiting on sales traction for other new Buicks in the pipeline.

Missing from the calculations? A replacement for the large Buick Lucerne sedan. While Cadillac will get a new sedan to replace the DTS and STS, Buick's plans for a vehicle larger than the LaCrosse remain unstated.

In terms of timing, all the vehicles from today's preview are to appear in Buick showrooms in the next 24 months. The sedans are the clear priorities, Docherty said, with the crossovers following, though no calendar years or model years were divulged. Along with the new products are new hybrids--a must for both Buick and for GMC, the truck brand tied in showrooms to Buick, Docherty says.

With GM's bankruptcy comes the negatives of public perception, but it's also brought Buick some freedom. GM doesn't have to support the Saturn brand, which was to offer some of the vehicles that Buick now has in its future. Going back to GM's unsuccessful sales turnaround at Oldsmobile in the early part of the decade, it's hard not to see a pattern of ideas carried forward, from Olds to Saturn, and now to Buick.

With Buick, however, it could be a different story. For the first time, all of GM's best ideas for a near-luxury brand will be focused in one showroom--and will be put to work on its oldest remaining nameplate, which coincidentally is a strong seller in China, too. Is the combination of new products and a new image enough to truly make Buick into an American Lexus? That remains unclear, but for sure, a big part of GM's future hinges on it.

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