By on May 29, 2006

 General Motors is convinced it can't afford to kill Buick. If it could, it would; but it can't, so it won't. So now what? Clearly, the Lucerne and LaCrosse (improvements though they are) aren't winning a great many brand converts. A radical re-think is in order. It's time to drop any pretense that Buick can possibly appeal to anyone younger than 70, and drink fully from the golden goblet of Metamucil. If GM insists upon keeping the marque on life support, what better way to do so than by wholeheartedly crafting a car designed for buyers close to employing the same?

It might not be the sexiest concept, but there's nothing intrinsically wrong with The General developing a brand that sells itself as "The Pensioner's Best Friend." America's growing pool of senior citizens is blessed with vast repositories of disposable income. And because the majority of the American automobile industry is off chasing the empty pockets of youth, it's an entirely unoccupied brand space, ripe for the plucking. Toyota made overtures toward the segment with vehicles like its Avalon. Ditto Cadillac's DTS. But the unintended adopt-a-grandparent success of the Scion xB and Honda Element prove that there's an important, unfulfilled niche. Someone needs to pull the lever full-tilt on the wrinklies' slot machine.

With a little development, Buick is the logical choice. "Beyond precision" lies simplicity: a brand offering vehicles with cost-effective innovations and equipment levels. Cataract-friendly gauges at the heart of basic instrumentation. Oversized switchgear. Heated, cooling, massaging seats that swivel to ease entry and exit (remember those?). Extra wide door apertures with reinforced hinges to ease entry and exit. OnStar. Electric everything, with power sliding trunk floors for easy loading and unloading, and power pedals within a Rockport's reach. Adjustable warning chime/turn signal volumes. Electronic medication reminder timers. Run-flats. Oversized sunglasses bins for granny's favorite set of Terminator shields. Two words: Rascal storage.

Every possible safety feature should be standard, from lane-departure warning systems to self-parking. Electronic nurses? Loads: SRS + ABS + EBD + DSC + ASR + BA = AARP. The ordering and purchasing experience must be simplified as much as possible. This author has railed against illogical options bundling, but the geriatric niche is one segment where simplified trim levels actually make sense. If higher-end features like satellite navigation are deemed a marketplace necessity, so be it— but designers must ensure that they're simple, intuitive designs, preprogrammed with relevant waypoints— drug stores, casinos, cat hospitals and Cracker Barrel restaurants, say.

These New Old School Buicks needn't be boats—there's a reason why vehicles like Chrysler's PT Cruiser and Scion's xB have met with open checkbooks among the septuagenarian set: their boxy shapes offer arthritic-sympathetic ingress and egress, upright posture, good visibility and room for potting soil, golf clubs, respirators, walkers, etc. The appeal of these econoboxes proves that modern seniors aren't necessarily attached to the baroque styling that typified the cars of their collective past. Over time, this will become increasingly true, as huge numbers of baby boomers turn in their Ford Five-Hundreds and Chevrolet HHRs such in search of vehicles to take them through their golden years.

And let's not forget the possibility of profit-rich cross-product marketing opportunities. Buick should offer branded walkers and wheelchairs and such, specially designed to fit in their vehicles. These Buick products ought to extend beyond simple accessories– GM could doubtlessly partner with a supplier for bespoke power-lifting orthopedic seats of varying foam density, size and support (for a hefty premium, of course). Leases could be configured with total free maintenance packages for the term of the agreement up to, and including wear items like brakes and tires.

Marketing would be a slam-dunk. Beyond having senior citizen notables as spokespeople and seeking approval stamps from various health organizations, if done correctly, GM could once again project the image of a benevolent corporation. "We respect our elders, and we're doing something to help them: offering seniors the safest, most convenient vehicles for their specific needs." Further, by catering directly and expressly to pensioners, GM's other divisions wouldn't have to compromise their design bogeys to accommodate a percentage of older buyers. They'd be free to pursue their own brand-specific identities (Cadillac and Chevrolet, namely).

We at TTAC are all in favor of tightening the frequency and criteria of testing procedures for senior licensure. Yet your (occasionally) humble narrator recognizes that America's increasing contingent of pensioners won't stand for having their personal mobility stripped wholesale. Perhaps the next best thing would be to put them in a vehicle that shouts to the rest of the motoring masses: "Warning! Elderly Person On Board!" A Buick crest on the rump of thousands of wayward, left-lane clogging sedans would give the rest of us a much-welcome heads-up, and provide life-sustaining income for a once-loved brand.

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