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March 26, 2013

GM in next phase of hoped for Buick revival

NEW YORK — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s this famous car brand whose average driver is more familiar with Social Security than social media.

General Motors Co. will make another attempt to get Buick to appeal to younger buyers with freshened up versions of the Regal midsize sports sedan and the LaCrosse large luxury car. GM unveiled the pair Tuesday ahead of the New York auto show.

Youth has been the theme of several of Buick marketing campaigns during the last three decades, with famous pitchmen from Tiger Woods to Shaquille O’Neal. Sales have even risen recently after a dramatic and lengthy decline. But even with that recent success, odds are against GM making Buick a go-to option for large numbers of drivers below the age of 40.

Buick, once coveted for its understated elegance, used to be a dominant brand. In 1984, GM sold 942,000 Buicks in the U.S., according to Ward’s AutoInfoBank. But many Buick buyers died, and younger people opted for SUVs and cooler European cars. Sales tumbled, bottoming out at just over 102,000 in 2009. GM only kept the brand alive because it became a huge seller in China.

The company doesn’t expect Buick sales to approach 900,000 per year again. But executives say they can still make a lot of money selling the higher-priced luxury vehicles with lower sales numbers.

GM is giving the LaCrosse a more sculpted, modern look. It gets updated LED daytime running lamps and tail lights and a larger front grille. On the inside, it gets new, more supportive seats and a modernized center stack with fewer buttons than the current car. The interior will have more of a luxury feeling to differentiate it from the sportier Regal.

The Regal gets similar cosmetic changes on the outside. Inside, more supportive seats and a simpler dashboard and center console give it a sportier look. GM’s 2.4-liter four-cylinder “e-Assist” engine, with a small electric motor that helps boost gas mileage, becomes standard. A new, more powerful version of GM’s 2-Liter turbocharged engine, with 259 horsepower, is in the sportier models, the turbo and GS.

GM says the Regal will be more responsive, refined and efficient than the previous model.

The LaCrosse goes on sale late this summer and the Regal comes out in the fall. Prices and gas mileage weren’t released, but GM hinted at efficiency and price increases. The current Regal starts at $29,015, while the LaCrosse starts at $31,660.

The LaCrosse, a new model in 2009, and the Regal, new in 2010, have helped Buick’s sales rise during the past three years, and reached 180,000 in 2012. Other catalysts were the new Verano, a compact based on the Chevrolet Cruze, and the Enclave, a big crossover SUV, that got a facelift last year. Also, Buick’s new Encore small SUV is just starting to hit showrooms.

The new products have helped to change Buick’s demographics. In 2006, Buick buyers on average had celebrated 64 birthdays. Last year that fell to 57, according to the company, The average car buyer in the U.S. is 52, according to the TrueCar.com auto pricing site.

Tony DiSalle, vice president of Buick marketing in the U.S., said Buick was the only luxury brand to lower its average age in the past five years. The Verano has helped — small cars tend to draw younger buyers. But Buick still wants to catch more people in their 40s. Regal buyers, on average, were 53 last year. The average age for a LaCrosse buyer wasn’t available.

But the new cars haven’t helped Buick sales keep up with the industry. Last year, Buick sales grew only 1.6 percent while total U.S. auto sales rose 13 percent. Spokesman Nick Richards blames the slow growth on a cut in low-profit sales to fleet buyers such as rental car companies as GM tries to boost the brand’s resale values. He says retail sales to individual buyers rose about 6 percent.

So far this year, though, sales are up 22 percent, DiSalle said. The brand, he said, now has five models to sell, when last year at this time it had only three. “We certainly have the ability here to go to market with broader market coverage,” he said.

Still, Buick’s models combined were outsold last year by single models from other automakers. Ford, for instance, sold just over 241,000 Fusion midsize cars last year, beating Buick by itself. But Buick did outsell some competing luxury brands including Acura, Infiniti and Lincoln.

Four years ago, Buick’s future was in doubt. Members of the Obama administration’s autos task force thought about getting rid of Buick during GM’s government-funded trip through bankruptcy court. But the brand survived because of a strong following in China. Chinese drivers bought more than 700,000 Buicks last year, up 8 percent from 2011.

In the U.S., Buick likely won’t approach those numbers because the stodgy image clings to the brand.

“The vehicles themselves are very suited for young driving habits. Good fuel economy, performance, nice looking,” said Rebecca Lindland, owner of Rebel Three Consulting of Greenwich, Conn.

“But it’s still not cool to be in a bar and say you have a Buick.”

 

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