Buick GL8 Minivan: GM's Proudly Non-Global Product

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
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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 t he 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.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Michel1961 Michel1961 on Apr 27, 2011

    I'm not going to argue this forever but here goes: Fully loaded 2011 Santa Fe Limited with Nav and towing: 38,5K CAN, 0% over 7 years Fully loaded 2011 Equinox V6 AWD LTZ with Nav and towing: 43,5K CAN, 5,68% over 7 years (to compare comparables) Difference: 5K more on MSRP alone, 13,5K with interest. On top of that, Hyundai gave me a 3K rebate. Chevrolet wouldn't budge. Let's be clear, I do not hate GM (or Ford, or Chrysler for that matter) but I do not like giving my money away. I want to pay the best price on similar products. Nobody can argue that an Equinox is worth even 5K more than a Santa Fe.

  • Bridge2farr Bridge2farr on Apr 27, 2011

    Sorry. Didn't realize they are piling on cash and giving away $ at 0% for 7 years! Does sound like a fire sale. And if it is true that they have all those incentives, what does that do to the resale value of a Santa Fe? And even with all the low interest and hood money it is important to note that Santa Fe US sales thru March 2011 are 14,392 units. Equinox at 43,230 units. And that's without the manufactuer trying to "buy" sales with gimmickry.

    • See 1 previous
    • Michel1961 Michel1961 on Apr 27, 2011

      If Hyundai is willing to 'buy' me off with comparable products at lower prices, then I guess I'm sold ! Jokes aside, if GM can sell 3 times more vehicles at a higher price, then I guess they are doing something right. Good for them. I wasn't that impressed, the dealership experience was horrendous and I wasn't willing to plunk down more money for an Equinox. Then again, I wasn't willing to plunk down more money for a Honda, a Toyota, a VW or a Subaru. Value is in the eye of the beholder.

  • FreedMike I suppose that in some crowded city like Rome or Tokyo, there's a market for a luxurious pint-size car. I don't think they'll be able to give them away here in the U.S.
  • TMA1 How much did exchange rates affect this decision? The Renegade is imported from Italy. I'm wondering if that's what caused the price to reach within a few hundred of the much bigger Compass. Kind of a no-brainer to pick the larger, more modern vehicle.
  • CEastwood Everytime I see one of these I think there's a dummie who could have bought a real car , but has to say look at me driving this cool thing I can't drive in the rain like an actual motorcycle that I should have bought in the first place ! It's not Batman I see driving these - it's middle age Fatman .
  • SilverCoupe I should be the potential audience for this (current A5 owner, considering an S5 in the future), but I can't say it excites me. I have never liked the vertical bars in the grilles of sporting Mercedes models, for one thing. The interior doesn't speak to me either.I would be more likely to consider a BMW 4 Series, though not the current version with the double Edsel grille. Still, I suppose it would be worth a look when the time comes to replace my current vehicle.
  • Verbal Can we expect this model to help M-B improve on finishing 29th out of 30 brands in CR's recent reliability survey?