General Motors 4.0: What is a Buick?

By Tom Martin

July 06, 2009

General Motors is going through a metamorphosis, as you know. Actually, this isn’t the first time. GM 1.0 was the emergent GM—a collection of disparate and dysfunctional brands (Chevrolet, Oakland/Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac) and parts makers assembled before and immediately after WWI by William Durant and others. GM 2.0 is the professional GM created by Alfred Sloan, starting in 1923. Sloan and his successors created an organizational structure focused on distinct market segments bolstered by a culture of strong styling and R&D. GM 2.0 worked from the ‘20s through the ‘60s and generally is viewed as GM’s best incarnation. GM 3.0 is the cancerous GM beset by bad labor contracts, difficulty coping with international competition and excess capacity. GM 3.0 begins roughly with the oil crisis of 1973 and extends to 2009. GM 4.0 is the post-bankruptcy GM. This is part three in a series that covers issues with the direction of GM 4.0.

Oddly enough, some of the most perplexing questions I get asked by normal people as editor of an automotive publication involve Buick. Most of them are along the lines of “Why did GM keep Buick?” and “What the heck is a Buick anyway?” Not a great place to be, if you’re GM. GM knows it has an issue here in the U.S. (Buick, remember, is a hot brand in China) and it is attacking the problem. Buick recently announced the new 2010 Buick LaCrosse, a car that gives us a chance to think about how GM is and should be thinking of the future of the brand.

As I suggested in my last blog, with the off-loading of Saturn, Pontiac, Hummer, and Opel, GM has a cleaner brand lineup. Buick clearly needs to fall between Chevrolet at the low end and Cadillac at the high end in the new tripartite GM (I am assuming GMC remains and Chevy trucks are sold elsewhere).  If Chevys are priced between $15 and $30k, and Cadillacs between $35 and $60k, Buicks should logically cost between $25 and $45k. These numbers aren’t exact; they represent the meat of the cars that will roll off dealer’s lots.

Buick seems to understand this.  I mentioned last time that Buick needs to be where Acura is, in some sense. So, at the LaCrosse launch, who were the target brands for Buick? You guessed it: Acura, Infiniti, Lexus.  I only hope that Buick deeply understands that being a cheaper Acura or Infiniti won’t work. The launch talked about that and it scares me. I think being a bit less expensive is fine, but Buick needs a concept of how it will be better (for less). Fortunately, Acura and Lexus, and to a lesser degree Infiniti, are middle-of-the-road brands. The great thing for Buick is that it is easier to trump the middle than it is to trump a brand that is clearly defined and passionately positioned (just ask Lamborghini how hard it is). Mercifully, Buick didn’t mention BMW as a target.

I also said that all GM brands need to have an aspirational strategy. I think Buick sees this, in part through its pricing targets, but even more in its styling plan. During recent history, I’d simply say Buicks have been bland and ugly. The LaCrosse is different. It is bold, and you might not love it, but clearly the design team has created interesting surfaces. The interior—designed in GM’s Chinese studios—is particularly well done, at least from photographs (we’ll be in the car soon to confirm).

That’s a good start, if Buick can do it consistently (the Enclave is really the first shot in this Buick turn-around and like many first shots it only partly succeeds). But I think there has to be more. The Buick management team sounds a little defensive (which is only human at this stage for a GM brand), which is worrying. What is more worrying is their tendency to express that defensiveness through the brand kiss of death: the laundry list. “Our car is luxurious, race-ready, techno-driven, safe, and high quality, with appeal to babies and octogenarians.” That won’t work.

I wish that Buick would latch on to one of the two obvious openings in the market. The first one is experiential quality. I think this is actually what it’s going for, but it doesn’t express it well, which makes me worry the market will miss it. Or even worse, the engineers might not do it.

The idea is simple. Quality in the future isn’t about reliability. That’s a commodity. Yeah, Land Rover, and Mini, and Smart, and Saab have some real problems, but for the most part a Cadillac, a Honda,  a Mercedes-Benz, a Toyota, a Mercury, and a Buick are the same in terms of reliability. The market believes there are differences, but Buick isn’t going to convince you that a Buick is more reliable than a Lexus.  So don’t try. Or, rather, flank ‘em.

The core Japanese brands that you’re targeting have quality weaknesses. For the most part, their design isn’t very sensual. None of the premium Japanese brands consistently has attractive exterior design and superb interior design and detailing.  I think Buick sees that.

But wait, there’s more to experiential quality. Buick also sees that the feel of quality is an opportunity. It expresses it as “quiet.”  There is more to this though, because Buicks need to feel more solid and substantial than the Big Three premium Japanese brands. Possible, but I think that will only go so far. More of a requirement than a competitive opportunity.

Then there is control. The Buick design language will appeal, I think, to women (and I assume Chinese people and design-sensitive men). Buick doesn’t state that as a target, but it is there, and wise I think.  In countless interviews with women as part of our road tests, a consistent theme emerges: women like cars that give a feeling of control. That, they say, means low body roll, good turn in, relatively quick steering ratios, good sightlines especially to the corners of the car, controls in the right place and properly weighted (not too light, not too heavy), and responsive drivetrains with good low-end and mid-range pull.  That’s basically an enthusiast checklist, minus noise and high-rpm power. Gordon Murray (of McLaren F1 fame) has written similar checklists.  I don’t think Buick gets this with a passion, but they could. This is the beginning of the soft underbelly of the competition.

The rest of the soft underbelly lies in functional superiority. Buick could exploit the packaging conservatism of the competition. Why doesn’t the LaCrosse have a hatch? Is there a four-door “coupe” and “coupe-wagon” coming? Is AWD available on every platform? How can they be fast followers (like Lexus) in exploiting packaging innovations from A and B class cars (e.g. the Fit rear seat)? How does every Buick come with an eco-feature that you’re reminded of when you stop to fill up (and your gas bill is lower than your neighbor’s)?

All this means is that Buick needs to make beautiful cars that people can really use. Luxury isn’t opulence anymore. Luxury is the pleasure of things that actually work—aesthetics and control and convenience. Would’ve made more sense to me to call that a Saab, but if they build it I might be able to learn that it’s a Buick.