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2011 Buick Regal (General Motors)
2011 Buick Regal (General Motors)

How Buick proved me wrong Add to ...

Count me among those who last year believed not even a combination of Warren Buffett, Frankenstein's monster, Mother Theresa and Albert Einstein could conjure up what's needed to save General Motors' Buick brand in North America.

Buick, I argued, should suffer the same fate as Hummer, Saturn and Pontiac - all dead brands in GM's post-bankruptcy world. Sure, keep Buick alive in China where it has loads of cachet. But in Canada and the United States, Buick, I said, is a damaged brand with an image problem. GM would be better off spending precious marketing dollars flogging Chevrolets and Cadillacs. Buick looked to be as unsalvageable as Oldsmobile was a decade ago when GM killed it.

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A year later, it looks like I might have been wrong.

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With the new 2011 Regal, Buick might just have a chance here in Canada and down in the States. The Regal, a re-badged Opel Insignia from Germany, is that good, that compelling, that much a value in the entry-luxe world of four-door sedans. After taking the better part of a day firing down the snaking, up-and-down blacktop known as British Columbia's Highway 3, Buick's newest model looks like the best in its segment.

The competition? Mainly, Buick sees it as Acura's TSX, a once-glorious car which does, indeed, seem old and dated and dull by comparison.

And to think the Regal almost never was. In fact, until GM became government-owned, the product plan called for this global, mid-size, front-drive platform (Epsilon II) to come to North America as a Saturn, the next-generation Aura. What you see underneath that lovely Regal body is the product of GM's Opel operations in Russelsheim, Germany - work that began in 2004.

When GM officials were making their case to U.S. Government officials, they argued for Buick's future and the centrepiece of their presentation was the Opel Insignia - Europe's 2009 Car of the Year and what you see as the Regal now. GM also hauled out a mountain of data about Buick's success in China, where the Regal is built and sold as a Buick. The case was compelling enough to save Buick, while Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer are goners and Saab has been Spyked - bought for essentially nothing by specialty car maker Spyker.

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The Regal says all you need to know about why the board of the new GM - mostly Obama administration appointees - rejected the sale of Opel to Canada's Frank Stronach and his Russian partners. If GM is to succeed - which means taxpayers get their money back - Opel is critical. The German division has a key role in GM's global product development. The Regal is proof of that.

In a nutshell, the Regal is terrific. You may not like Buick's fussy waterfall grille, but the rest of this thick-shouldered, graceful design is like nothing else we've seen with a Buick badge in decades, if ever. The cabin is equally well done. Wheeling about in this Regal is not embarrassing, but actually rewarding. The snobs at your club will give it a second take, even as they wonder why you've jumped into an "American" car. If you must, say it's not really American at all - it's German. Because it is.

GM, of course, still needs to prove that its marketing people know how to put together a successful campaign, and Buick's tagline "The New Class of World Class" is a discouraging start. At best that's a one-year, "we're back in business" sort of slogan that says little about the essence of Buick, what the brand represents and what its products embody.

Fact is, Buick has plenty to talk about on the product front and the slogan writers might want to build a tagline from the products out. For instance, both the Buick Enclave large crossover and the Buick LaCrosse sedan scored well in Consumer Reports testing. That is no small feat. In CR's latest annual new-car report, GM and Chrysler were on the bottom of the magazine's list even as these Buicks stood out as winners.

Meanwhile, in J.D. Power and Associates 2010 three-year Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), Buick tied for third overall with Toyota's Lexus brand - and Buick shared top spot in 2009 with Jaguar. The LaCrosse is also the highest-ranked mid-size car in the same study. The story boils down to this: Buick can make a fair case for quality.

Buick is also a massive success in the world's largest car market, China. There, Buick attracts young, wealthy customers who set the tone for the brand's success. GM's research shows that in China, the average Buick customer is 28 years old, university educated, fast-tracked in his company, with a careerist wife. Unlike in the U.S. and Canada where buyers average about 65 years of age, Buick's China loyalists are decades away from retiring to comfortable shoes and the Golf Channel.

If Buick can get its messaging right, and if somehow it can get people to give the products a serious look-see, then there should be a future. Perhaps not like in China, where Buick sales are up about 50 per cent this year and last year Buick was the sixth most-popular foreign car brand, but there is no reason to think Buick can't nail down 250,000-300,000 buyers on this continent. After all, in 2009, Buick in China sold 445,289 cars and crossovers - compared to slightly more than 100,000 in the U.S. and Canada.

To be utterly frank, Buick will get a last chance in Canada and the U.S. thanks to China. Buick's costs are largely covered by the Chinese operations. Without China, reports suggest that Buick's product development costs would be 30 to 40 per cent higher.

So China, where Buicks sell in numbers, and Germany, where the Regal/Insignia was developed, have created a future for Buick in North America. The Regal, meanwhile, represents a combination of talents from GM's world - and suggests something a bit less than Mother Theresa et al may yet save the brand.

That said, I do hate being wrong.

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