Bringing Home a Good Lesson Learned in China
Sunday, July 22, 2007
To understand the 2008 Buick Enclave, you've got to understand the luxury segment of the Chinese automobile market in which Buick is a top seller.
That's Buick as in B-U-I-C-K, long an ignored player in the U.S. automobile business and frequently the butt of geriatric jokes, as in: "He's so old he still drives a Buick."
Buick has been in China since 1912. There, it is a revered automotive badge, especially among the country's upper-income groups who demand top quality and who hold prestige and honor -- they call it "face" -- as sacrosanct.
Buick's status in China probably surprises many Americans, as it surprised me on several visits to Shanghai General Motors, a 50-50 joint venture between General Motors and Shanghai Automotive Industry, established in June 1997.
I said I was "surprised." That's an understatement. I was shocked beyond belief by China's acceptance of Buicks. Moreover, I was stunned by the superior quality of the Chinese Buicks I drove (on a Shanghai GM test track) and saw.
Those Buicks were better than any Buicks I'd ever driven or seen in the United States. They were solid and whisper-quiet. Fit and finish were impeccable. Interior craftsmanship -- the way materials blended with one another; the impressive attention to detail on the smallest items, such as the feel and weight of glove-compartment doors -- was awe-inspiring.
It made me angry. I became the unruly guest railing at my GM hosts for what I thought was a slap in the face to GM's home market. "Why do you guys give this kind of Buick to the Chinese while giving us crappy Buicks at home?" I asked.
I was in no mood for polite talk. Nor was I mollified by an answer from one of the Shanghai GM officials: "This is what the Chinese market expects from Buick," he said.
I wanted to punch him. I chose sarcasm instead.
"I suppose that means GM plans to live up to the expectations of the American market and stop selling Buicks in America," I said.
He assured me that I was wrong.