DETROIT – It might sound surprising to American ears, but 2015 was the best year for Buick in the car make’s 112-year history.
Yes, that’s the same Buick still trying to overcome the American perception that it’s all stodgy sedans. Your grandfather’s Buick. Former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz a decade ago famously called Buick and Pontiac “damaged brands.” While Pontiac was killed off when GM emerged from bankruptcy, Buick was left to find its way. And it’s been a struggle.
In last two years, Buick has been flooding U.S. television airwaves with ads of people reacting with surprise that an attractive vehicle is, in fact, a Buick. “That’s a Buick?” And the GM division has been rolling out new models aimed at younger customers.
“The narrative hasn’t changed as fast as the brand has,” said Buick brand manager Rob Peterson at the North American International Auto Show last week.
Still, Buick managed to sell 1.2 million vehicles worldwide last year, a third consecutive sales record.
And that’s thanks to China.
Eighty percent of all Buicks are sold in China these days. Last year, that amounted to nearly 990,000 vehicles – 4-1/2 times as many sold in the United States.
In China, Buick is everything it wants to be in the United States. The nameplate is seen as among the hottest luxury brands. And it enjoys rich historical ties. The last emperor Pu Yi owned two Buicks. The last provisional president Sun Yat-Sen, regarded as the father of modern China, had one. So did the first premier Zhou Enlai.
Now, Buick is using its success in the Chinese market to help its rebuilding efforts in the United States.
This summer, Buick will become the first major U.S. automaker to sell a Chinese-made vehicle, the Envision crossover, in the United States. The model performed well in China after its debut there in late 2014. The United Auto Workers union criticized Buick’s decision when it was revealed last December. But reaction has been muted.
“At one point, there would’ve been a larger uproar over this,” IHS Automotive analyst Stephanie Brinley said. But today cars are built all over the world, and most buyers might think about a brand’s nationality but not about where each model is manufactured.
For Buick, making the Envision in China allows it test the waters in a new market. And if it sells well enough, it is possible Buick could manufacture the model in the United States.
Buick sales in the United States have fallen by 48% since 2002. A four-year streak of increasing volumes was narrowly snapped in 2015. But the automaker is confident it can get back on track this year. Buick already outsells Lincoln and Acura in the United States.
Buick has redesigned sedans such as the Verano, LaCrosse and Regal. It killed off the Lucerne. And it will offer three SUVs – the Encore, Envision and Enclave.
“You can’t have enough SUV crossover offerings,” Peterson said. “It’s the hottest segment going.”
This month Buick begin selling the Cascada convertible, the brand’s first new convertible in 25 years.
Buick has high hopes for the Cascada, which is being made in Poland.
It’s planning to run its first-ever Super Bowl ad touting the new convertible.
And it’s not expected to make any mention of Buick’s troubled past.