March 21, 2007 at 1:00 am

GM's Buick brand reaches crossroads

DETROIT -- Crunch time has arrived for General Motors Corp.'s beleaguered Buick brand.

Saddled with a stodgy image and faced with years of sliding market share, the automaker is working hard to pump some life into the 104-year-old brand born in Flint.

In the coming months, Buick will soup up its two sedans and launch a much-anticipated crossover sport utility vehicle.

Buick can't afford to let those efforts fizzle, general manager Steve Shannon said Tuesday, pegging this year as a defining time in the brand's revival effort.

"2007 is going to be the breakout year for Buick," Shannon told the Automotive Press Association luncheon. "The business is tough; we're fighting it out every day."

Buick is looking for something to revive itself in North America, where sales have fallen more than 40 percent since 2002.

While the brand has flourished in the hot Chinese market, where GM last year sold more of the vehicles than it did in North America, Buick has struggled in the United States. Just two years ago, GM product czar Bob Lutz described Buick as a "damaged brand" and said GM may have to phase it out if matters don't improve.

Plans for the coming months include reviving the Super car designation used on high-performance models of the 1950s, Shannon announced on Tuesday. Beefed-up models of the Lucerne and LaCrosse will get the moniker later this year.

The Enclave crossover SUV -- Buick's most promising vehicle launch in years -- will hit showrooms this summer with Tiger Woods starring in the ads.

And, next month, GM will unveil the 2008 LaCrosse at the New York Auto Show.

"We've been rebuilding Buick bit by bit," Shannon said.

Saving Buick is a tough proposition, and some question whether GM's strategy is focused and aggressive enough to work.

GM has taken a different approach with Buick than it did with Saturn, a brand bolstered by an all-out product assault in the past 18 months. GM has added five vehicles to the Saturn lineup, even shipping a compact car to the United States from Belgium to better compete in that market.

With Buick, GM is steadily thinning down the brand's model lineup, which will soon include only three vehicles -- the LaCrosse, Lucerne and the Enclave.

GM stopped production on the Rendezvous sport utility vehicle in December and plans to stop production by early summer of the Terraza minivan and Rainier midsize sport utility vehicle.

Buick last year sold about 96,000 Lucernes and 71,000 LaCrosses, both slightly up from '05.

The Buick dealer network also is being consolidated. GM is moving to combine Buick, Pontiac and GMC dealers into one outlet that would sell all three brands.

"Even though Buick needs as much or more attention as Saturn, it's not getting a full-fledged revival," said Karl Brauer, editor in chief of Edmunds.com, an online auto shopping site. "It's a tough battle and there is a lot of baggage there."

The Enclave is promising, Brauer said, but likely won't go far in changing Buick's image even if it does well.

Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at J.D. Power and Associates, came away from Tuesday's Buick presentation with the impression that GM has not crafted a focused strategy on Buick.

In the presentation, Shannon talked about attracting established, wealthy buyers, keeping Buick loyalists and also drawing a younger urban crowd.

"They need to define what success is for them," Libby said. "It seems like they're trying to accomplish many, many things."

You can reach Sharon Terlep at (313) 223-4686 or sterlep@detnews.com">sterlep@detnews.com.

2008 Buick Enclave (GM / Buick)