Buick: The American Lexus (or Not)

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz

General Motors is a trash talker. The automaker brags about future show-stoppers, unveils concept vehicles with a sly wink (knowing full well they're stuck in development Hell) and offers press hacks "preview" drives of half-baked green machines. No GM brand has been more abused by these dishonest "you just wait" promises than Buick. The 2004 Velite was a glimpse of an alternate universe, where Buick made perfect sense. And as far back as 2003, board-certified spin specialist Bob Lutz was busy proclaiming that Buick will be "an American Lexus." As if.

That said, last year, with minimal fanfare, General Motors introduced a brand new model: the Buick Park Avenue. The badge-engineered Aussie (nee Holden Statesman) is a full-sized rear wheel-drive sedan boasting the kind of understated elegance– both inside and out– capable of resurrecting the ailing marque's appeal. In China.

America didn't get it. (Literally.) Buick's U.S. aficionados couldn't understand why America's favorite military dictatorship received the brand's potential savior, while the States got a milquetoast sedan whose name means masturbation in Quebecois. Slapping the "Super" moniker on Buick's front wheel-drive sedans did nothing- as in zilch- to appease the faithful. Buick's beat-up bolsterers lit-up their corner of the Internet, venting their electronic ire at the missed opportunity.

Understandably, John McElroy over at Autoline Detroit wanted to quiz Bob Lutz about Buick building better cars in The People's Republic. In May, GM's Car Czar agreed to tackle the issue– provided Autoline didn't air the relevant segment on TV. The news op could, however, put video of Maximum Bob's reply on their website.

Hang on. Never mind the fact that "one of the deans of the Detroit automotive press corp" [sic] agreed to censor himself at GM's behest. Consider GM's logic. The automaker attempted to minimize the spread of Lutz's response to an internet-disseminated controversy by restricting it to the internet.

Anyway, Lutz blamed that the Statesman misstep on Buick's beleaguered dealers. Back around the time Lutz had been playing the dozens with Lexus, his minions had previewed Lucerne and Holden Statesman prototypes to American Buick [Pontiac, GMC] dealers. According to Maximum Bob, the car floggers said they didn't need two models. They picked the Lucerne to grace their showrooms.

It's hard to understand why General Motors left the fate of the entire Buick brand in the hands of its dealers. Buick dealers don't really have customers. How does a car dealer grasp the desires of potential buyers that have never darkened their doorways?

Answer: you don't. Buick's sharp-end sharpies opted for what was clearly the worse of the two cars: a front-wheel drive H-body sedan riding on a platform dating back to the year Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's secret vault (1986). Twenty-one years later, and these not-entirely-prescient Buick dealerships are selling, on average, six cars a month. Not six Lucernes. Six Buicks.

Normally, GM in general and Bob Lutz in particular sweep these sorts of decisions under the red-ink stained rug (GTO?) and tout The Next Big Thing. For reasons known only to Maximum Bob and his handlers (i.e. his ego and super ego), Lutz felt compelled to address the question again, via a video on GM's Fastlane Blog. So, Bob's people asked Bob, why is China selling a better looking Buick luxury car than the U.S.?

"I don't think they are," Maximum Bob insisted, confusing prevarication with fact. "They simply are the first market to get the new Buick Park Avenue, which they will actually assemble in China. And that vehicle, or a variant of it, is always a possibility for Buick [USA] in the future."

Translation: "The critics are wrong! And even if they are right, we were also right, just a bit… premature. Cautious. Sensible. You'll see! Maybe." Bob's answer may not set new standards for this master of ill-informed, shoot-from-the-hip and sort it all out later (or just forget it) analysis, but it's not for lack of trying. Meanwhile, the Buick brand is spinning off into oblivion.

Or not. No discussion of Buick's Lexian aspirations would be complete without mentioning the new Enclave. The brand's sales may be down 30.4 percent from last June, but their crossover is gaining traction. May's aforementioned six cars per dealer per month average represents a two car per dealer improvement on their previous stat. As GM ramps-up Enclave production, Buick dealers may soon stagger into double digits.

But the broader question remains: is the vehicle pitched against the RX350 Bob Lutz' "American Lexus?"

Perhaps. But there is an important corporate disparity that overshadows any model vs. model comparison. Toyota doesn't compete with itself. GM does (Buick Enclave vs. GMC Acadia vs. Saturn Outlook vs. Chevrolet playertobenamedlater). As Buick's Chinese debacle proves, whenever you compete with yourself, you lose.

Justin Berkowitz
Justin Berkowitz

Immensely bored law student. I've also got 3 dogs.

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6 of 74 comments
  • Bugo Bugo on Oct 06, 2010

    If I had the choice between a Buick and a Lexus I'd take the Buick. Why? Style. Lexuses are bland and boring, while Buicks at least have some style. And since Toyota's reliability is overrated, there's nothing about them that draws me to their cars.

  • Jcg40133 Jcg40133 on Aug 18, 2013

    I always love coming back to these hateful and projecting articles YEARS after they were written to illuminate where we are today in relation to where we were at the time this crap was projected. This article, written in 2007, paints the most grim picture of the Buick brand I've ever seen in all the years I've followed the automotive market. Fast forward to today, late 2013, and what do we have? A Buick brand that has very impressive lineup. A brand that has now outsold Lexus, Acura, and a number of other foreign competitors. A Buick brand that is now a conquest product. A brand that survived the test of time and the disparaging remarks and stigma placed upon it. A brand that lowered it's average age from 72 to 53 in one year's time from 2010 to 2011 and continuing to decline as now in 2013 Buick's average buyer age is hovering around 50 years old. So, Justin Berkowitz, now that's it's 6 years from the point you slung this mud at Buick, would you rather eat it or take a bath in it? You made a bad call, sir! Are you still authoring? I hope not.

    • See 3 previous
    • Jcg40133 Jcg40133 on Aug 19, 2013

      @LectroByte Every link gives a different figure. One site even goes so low as citing an average age of 43 (for Regal buyers)...I think that's a bit of a stretch, but if you run through Google and look at the average age, each source gives something different reflecting different data collection. Regardless, the point here is that 6 years later, Buick made a transformation that no one (not even I) thought possible. Good for them.

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.