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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

Changing people's perceptions of Buick

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Changing people's perceptions of Buick

When the head of General Motors' Buick and GMC brands resigned after only nine days on the job this month, the rest of us could interpret it in one of two ways: either Michael Richards found himself horribly ill-suited to the new GM executive ranks under chairman and chief executive officer Ed Whitacre, the former telecom exec; or Richards took a long look at the job ahead, and decided his efforts were better served elsewhere.

“Michael Richards has elected to leave GM to pursue other opportunities,” Susan Docherty, GM's new sales and marketing chief, said in a statement.

Ahem. There is always plenty to read between the lines in such a curt statement and, in the clubby world of Detroit's auto industry, the parsing has been going on in earnest.

But that's gossipy insider stuff. And regardless of the fate of Michael Richards, the Buick brand is critically important to the overall reinvention of GM.

Bankruptcy behind it, debt load tamed, and flush with both cash and an impatient board of directors and chairman/CEO, GM looks serious about making Buick relevant. It hasn't been for decades.

Sure, not every critic was happy to see Buick survive as one of the four GM brands in North America (along with Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac), but that debate is past. GM needs profits out of Buick and not just from China, where the brand is really quite strong.

Buick might just have a chance now that Whitacre has signalled that the clubby days of “old” GM are over.

Whitacre dropped a bombshell earlier this month in announcing that former CEO Fritz Henderson had resigned. Henderson was a GM lifer and a finance man – a very smart and hard-working finance man – through and through.

But Buick doesn't need finance men or women. And it apparently doesn't need Richards, a 27-year Ford veteran hired by vice-chairman Bob Lutz, whose role at GM was dramatically changed this month from head of marketing to Whitacre's “adviser.”

Here we have yet another signal that Whitacre and the board think GM is not yet good enough, fast enough, aggressive enough, and committed enough to change and compete in a cutthroat auto industry.

If you wanted one sign that old GM is being buried, the executive shakeup speaks volumes.

Buick could turn out to be the sleeper in GM's turnaround. There is profit to be mined from the brand, but only if potential buyers give the new models a real chance – actually test drive them head-to-head against the competition, especially Toyota's Lexus premium brand.

Many might even be surprised and delighted enough to give Buick a last chance and buy something. And this really is Buick's last chance.

Buick types are absolutely convinced they can take a serious run at Lexus, though in their most honest moments they concede that the most likely Buick buyers for now will be converts from Ford, Chrysler and possibly GM's own Cadillac brand.

The billboards tell the story of where Buick would like be, though. When I was in Los Angeles earlier this month for the auto show, I spotted a new billboard campaign for the Buick LaCrosse that pokes fun at Lexus. With the LaCrosse taking a dominant spot, the tag lines read: “Another thing for Lexus to relentlessly pursue,” “EX your Lexus,” and “Goodbye, road rage. Hello, road envy.”

The LaCrosse is just one of the arrows in Buick's quiver. At the LA auto show, Buick unveiled another and it's not aimed so much at any Lexus as at the Acura TSX.

The car is the 2011 Regal, which goes on sale in the second quarter of 2010. It's the third Buick aimed at rejuvenating the brand and attracting younger buyers. First came the Enclave crossover, then the LaCrosse sedan and next year the Regal.

The Regal essentially is a re-badged Opel Insignia sedan and that is not a bad thing in any way. The Insignia was European Car of The Year in 2009. The Regal, say Buick engineers, is aggressively tuned for a tight, firm ride and smart cornering.

This is also a Canadian story. While the first Regals will be assembled in Germany until about mid-2011, production is eventually coming to GM's Oshawa, Ont., facility. It is one of North America's most efficient and highest-quality operations.

But back to the actual car. The front-drive Regal, Insignia and LaCrosse share GM's global mid-sized, front-drive platform. However, the Regal is 173 mm shorter than the LaCrosse, and the wheelbase is trimmed 90 mm. Moreover, the Regal will be available with a four-cylinder engine and positioned below the LaCrosse. Figure mid-$30,000s at the most.

Buick's marketers will push the car's firm chassis, the optional turbocharged engine and a suspension that allows drivers to change tunings. Craig Bierley, Buick's product and marketing director, thinks the new Regal is something entirely different from the previous Regal, a horrifically dull but thoroughly reliable car that was discontinued in 2004.

“Delivering performance credentials to the Buick buyer – and changing people's perceptions – is the role that the Regal plays in spades for us,” Bierley says.

The Regal's big and unenviable job is to wake up younger buyers. Today, the average Buick buyer is collecting an old-age pension. But the Regal is targeting customers in their 40s and 50s, especially those who are interested in not only the TSX, but also the Audi A4, Volvo S60 and Lexus IS 250/350.

Here's Buick's challenge by the numbers: In 2008, 1 per cent – 1 per cent – of Lexus buyers considered buying a Buick. That figure has stayed at 1 or 2 per cent for five years. That's what J.D. Power and Associates says, adding that the average age of a Buick buyer this year is 62. At least the trend is downwards, from 64 in 2007 and 63 in 2008.

Meanwhile, the current Lucerne is about to be axed, making way for the LaCrosse to be Buick's flagship automobile.

The LaCrosse is notable for its quiet ride – created in part by acoustic laminated glass, premium absorption material under the car and a perimeter seal for the hood. Those extras will be absent from the Regal, say Buick types in describing how two cars with almost identical underpinnings can end up so different.

Buick could also differentiate the LaCrosse and Regal by giving one or the other an expanded lineup. After all, in Europe, the Insignia is available as a sedan, five-door hatchback and wagon.

Could one or more of those become Regals? Remember, the Regal sedan and hatchback went on sale in China with four-cylinder engines this year.

There might be life at Buick, yet.

LINK:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/new-cars/auto-news/changing-peoples-perceptions-of-buick/article1410353/

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Hopefully but they do need something to slot in above the LaX, three great models is good Regal, LaX, and Enclave but they need something extra still.

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Hopefully but they do need something to slot in above the LaX, three great models is good Regal, LaX, and Enclave but they need something extra still.

they're getting a delta II also....

i would love to see... basically a new "roadmaster", even in concept.

they're on a roll otherwise.

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Unless there is something remarkable coming, I think Lacrosse is likely to be the top of the line for Buick. I can see the lower end trims being dropped, though the 4-cylinder will stay. Dougherty said at the round table that they picture Buick with 4-5 models total.

My guess is DeltaII, Regal, Lacrosse, Enclave with a possible baby Enclave.

That said, if the Regal does well enough, we could end up with up to 4 body styles of that model alone.... and that would fill out Buick's portfolio very nicely.

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Considering the LaX is a pretty big car anyway, it Buick doesn't need a bigger sedan. Maybe a coupe would be nice but I think a smaller Buick would be the best way to for now, both in terms of brand building and sale generating. Plus since Buick slots below Cadillac, a less expensive but still premium small Buick would fit the brand's intended image and help get more new buyers in.

Ford thinks there's a market for small premium cars (I agree), so I think Buick will find buyers for its new small car if done right.

Of course if Opel build a coupe version of the Insignia I see no reason why we won't at least get that version for the Regal is the sedan does well here.

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While I like wagons I'm not sure how strong the business case would be for it coming here. This is America, and if it doesn't have a jacked up ground clearance it's uncool. :banghead:

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I would love to see a coupe spawned off of the Regal--think of a nice two-door, Regal GS with AWD and a 6-manual... that's pretty hot.

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I would love to see a coupe spawned off of the Regal--think of a nice two-door, Regal GS with AWD and a 6-manual... that's pretty hot.

Speaking of such things gets me all hot and bothered...in a good way...ha ha

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Considering the LaX is a pretty big car anyway, it Buick doesn't need a bigger sedan. Maybe a coupe would be nice but I think a smaller Buick would be the best way to for now, both in terms of brand building and sale generating. Plus since Buick slots below Cadillac, a less expensive but still premium small Buick would fit the brand's intended image and help get more new buyers in.

:yes: agreed. LaCrosse is large enough given where the US market seems to be headed.

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I wish Buick would bring the Park Avenue to our shores to be the flagship. To be the large Buick, the Lacrosse is too narrow and doesn't feel spacious inside, the vast legroom in the back notwithstanding. The low roof and high beltline make it feel closed in.

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I wish Buick would bring the Park Avenue to our shores to be the flagship. To be the large Buick, the Lacrosse is too narrow and doesn't feel spacious inside, the vast legroom in the back notwithstanding. The low roof and high beltline make it feel closed in.

agreed, although they need to restyle the outside.

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