Ever since Bertel showed us the newest version of the Buick GL8 minivan, with its “Business Concept”-inspired design and executive airport shuttle mission, we’ve been curious about the chances of it coming to the US. After all, GM hasn’t sold a minivan in the US since the Uplander died in 2009, a far cry from the 336,000-odd minivans The General sold in America just ten years before. But when we asked our Best and Brightest if Buick could use a minivan, the response was a fairly resounding “no.” One particularly uncharitable soul even suggested that we were trying to goad GM into making a mistake in order to have something to bash them for. But, as it turns out, GM’s US execs didn’t need to be goaded at all to consider bringing the GL8 to the US market. GM China boss Kevin Wales tells Reuters [via the Baltimore Sun] that
They’ve looked at it on and off as long as I’ve been out here. They’ve made a fundamental decision that says demand for that type of product’s not strong enough. We say that’s fine. We’ll just keep selling out here.”
So that’s it? It’s simply a question of demand? Of course not. After all, there’s probably not a marketing man in the business who wants to try to generate some positive market research on the blue-sky concept of a Buick minivan. I mean, are there too words in the automotive lexicon that inspire more visions of dull, aging, white-bread, anti-enthusiasm than “Buick” and “Minivan”? (GM defenders please note that I realize Buick is making strides, but consumer perceptions always lag such improvements by years). Building a successful Buick minivan would, like any other high-risk product, would come down to execution: executed well, a Buick minivan could be a brand-defining move away from the modern crossover design malaise. But again, it turns out that execution would be a bit of an issue, given the GL8’s aged basis, a development of the U-Body platform which debuted in 1990. Joseph Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting explains:
The vehicle, built at a plant GM operates under a joint venture with China’s SAIC Motor Corp , generates a “boatload of money” because it is based on an old U.S. minivan platform that does not require a lot of investment, Phillippi said. However, it would likely be costly to upgrade the GL8 to match current U.S. safety and feature requirements.
“I doubt whether the electrical or electronic architecture could handle the kind of hardware and technology you’d want to put into it to make it for the U.S.,” he said. “I love the car, but it may be impossible without massive investment.”
Even Susan Docherty makes an appearance (!) from her GM International Operations exile, to make a typically banal point on the topic (and make us miss her so!).
For instance, Susan Docherty, head of sales and marketing for GM’s international operations acknowledged the vehicle lacks the third-row, fold-flat seats U.S. car buyers prefer.
Meanwhile, rather than admit that GM is just making a boatload of profits off an ancient platform and the relatively low expectations of the Chinese market, GMIO Planning VP Lowell Paddock
emphasized no changes would be made that would disappoint the GL8’s core Chinese executive customers. GM even markets the GL8 in China as “business class on wheels.”
“We wouldn’t tamper with that to meet another market’s requirements,” he said. “It’s important that that be spot on in the China market.”
Because when the Chinese think “business class on wheels,” they are specifically not thinking of a product that lives up to American expectations. Even as more and more global firms develop vehicles specifically aimed at satisfying both US and Chinese customers. The reality: at 50k units a year (albeit at a $35k-$48k price point), the GL8 doesn’t even sell all that well in China. It sells well enough for Wale to brag about the “unbelievable” demand in China (while analysts rave about its unbelievable profits), but not well enough to ever make the GL8 more than merely the last gasp of a platform that’s now entering its third decade.