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2012 Buick Verano. (GM/Wieck)
2012 Buick Verano. (GM/Wieck)

GM’s ‘other’ premium brand

Buick making a comeback in North America Add to ...

Earlier this year, J.D. Power and Associates had a little love for Buick, General Motors’ “other” premium brand – a Top 10 finish in the last long-term Vehicle Dependability Study.

Buick, in fact, finished 9th and well ahead of Audi and BMW, Infiniti, Jaguar and many others. Those ahead of Buick read like a who’s who of upscale car brands: Porsche, Cadillac, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz to name four. And there is, indeed, something of a comeback at work for Buick in North America, though what’s happening falls far short of anything resembling a “breakout” performance.

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Buick gets some love from the quality researchers, but the marketplace and consumers individually have long memories and the images based on Buick’s history are hard to replace with new ones of the current Buick. At least Buick’s image has been boosted by the compact-sized Verano, which is an excellent small car at a good price ($22,595-$27,620). The larger Regal is also a fine sedan and it’s done just fine since coming to North America as an Americanized Opel Insignia two years ago.

On the other hand, the Buick LaCrosse remains underappreciated, perhaps because it has a fuzzy presence despite the obvious strong points of a large sedan with luxury features that just barely nudges past $40,000 ($40,405). Walk down the street and ask a dozen people to describe a LaCrosse and you’ll more than likely be met with 12 black looks.

Buick needs a stronger lineup and a more focused marketing plan backed by marketing dollars. Period. The Enclave crossover SUV is a terrific buy ($43,315-$51,880 before discounts), but it has remained essentially unchanged since 2007-2008. If Buick is to make a true challenge against the likes of Acura and Lexus, then GM needs to back that effort with more resources for Buick. At least the Enclave is slated for a re-skin for the coming 2013 model year.

And make no mistake, GM has the resources to refashion Buick. Sales in North America may have landed well below 200,000 units last year, but Buick is a smash hit in China. According to trade journal Automotive News, Buick is the No. 5 brand there with sales of 645,829 in 2011. China is the reason Buick survived GM’s 2009 bankruptcy, so now it’s time those booming sales in China funded a product renaissance at Buick and one on a global scale.

The truth is, Buick has too much unrealized potential. Sure, the brand is 109 years old and many associate Buick with “Old GM.” But Automotive News reports that 41 per cent of Buick buyers in 2011 came from non-GM brands, up from 29 per cent in 2007. The Regal started that trend and the Verano is continuing it.

The good news for Buick is that the Encore small crossover is coming within the year and it will do wonders to expand the brand’s reach. But Buick desperately needs a “halo” car to cast a positive glow right across the lineup. A sports car or a sporty coupe or perhaps some sort of novel “green” car would do that. Where is the Buick version of the Chevrolet Volt, for instance?

Buick is not going away; the Chinese love their Buicks too much. So why not get serious about filling out a Buick lineup that today consists in North America of three sedans, all with very different pedigrees, and an aging large crossover? The opportunity is there for GM. Will the company seize it?

jcato@globeandmail.com

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