Buick again plans a surprise before Detroit auto show

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

For the second straight year, Buick will use the Sunday ahead of press days for the North American International Auto Show for a big premiere.

The entry-level premium brand will use the Eastern Market in Detroit to show journalists from across the globe the Chinese-built Buick Envision compact SUV for the U.S. market and another surprise car. Representatives of the General Motors Co. brand are mum on what that is, but some analysts predict it could be a latest version of the Verano small car or a small-car concept based off an Opel Astra or Adam — or possibly an all-new large car, or the latest Enclave SUV or Regal sedan.

“We have a very special program, and we had a surprise last year, so we’ll see if we can do something this year as well,” Duncan Aldred, U.S. vice president of Buick, said in a recent interview.

Some analysts say the Verano makes sense because forecasts are for the car to be significantly updated for model-year 2017. Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting with LMC Automotive, says Buick could show the next-generation Regal, which is scheduled to go into production in early 2017, or a concept of a new small car based off an Opel due here in 2019. He said it’s also possible Buick will choose to show its updated Enclave, also due in spring 2017, giving the brand a one-two SUV punch with the new Envision SUV.

Last year, Buick revealed the Cascada convertible and the surprise Avenir concept stunner that was a hit of the Detroit auto show.

Akshay Anand, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book, suggests Buick may show a production Avenir or a new large car, something a bit pricier than the LaCrosse. “I think they need some flagship sedan to get people excited about the brand,” he said.

But Aldred told reporters in November that the LaCrosse would serve as Buick’s flagship and it had no plans to bring the Avenir to market.

Buick’s U.S. sales of just more than 223,000 fell 2.6 percent in 2015, though the brand surpassed its 2014 global sales on Dec. 11 and likely will top more than 1 million sales in China for 2015.

The brand in the U.S. has relied upon its two crossover/SUVs to prop up sales. Sales of the small Encore rose 38.2 percent in 2015 and the large Enclave SUV’s sales were down by a few hundred sales compared to 2014. Buick sedan sales have been lackluster, with the LaCrosse, Regal and Verano all down by double-digits last year, led by the Verano’s 27.1 percent slide.

In early December, Buick confirmed it would add the Envision compact crossover to its lineup in summer 2016. The Envision now is sold only in China and GM will import the crossover from its plant in Yantai, China — marking the first time a Detroit automaker has imported a vehicle from China.

It’s a move that has sparked some outrage, including from the UAW, which called the decision a “slap in the face” to U.S. taxpayers who helped save GM. The union urged the automaker to put the product into one of its American plants. Analysts say GM and Buick likely opted to make the Envision news ahead of time and to debut it off-site to defray some of that attention.

“Whether it’s Envision or something else or another product coming to the Buick lineup from China, it’s an issue that’s far more sensitive for those of us in the automotive industry than from a consumer’s perspective,” said Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst for IHS Automotive.

Aldred acknowledged that where a vehicle is built matters to some people, but noted the auto industry is a global business, and luxury automakers sell vehicles in the U.S. now that are made in other countries. Volvo Car Corp. last year began exporting a China-made car, the S60 Inscription sedan, to the U.S.

“The reality is most customers don’t know and are less concerned about where it’s built, but are more concerned about the integrity of the product, the brand that’s providing that product, the engineering behind it, and then obviously all the service that goes with it,” he said.

Aldred said GM knew it had to be in the hottest segment in the United States — compact crossovers and SUVs. And the Envision has been a success in China, where sales likely will reach 140,000 to 150,000 vehicles for 2015, he said.

“The vehicle is designed, engineered and tested right here in Michigan,” Aldred said. “It’s built to General Motors’ global manufacturing standards.”

IHS expects Buick will sell about 45,000 Envisions in the U.S. in 2017.

The Envision is one of three introductions Buick has confirmed for 2016 — and one of seven new or significantly refreshed vehicles Buick will launch in the next three years.

Buick’s new convertible, the Cascada, is due to arrive in U.S. showrooms at the end of January into February. The revamped 2017 LaCrosse sedan, which bowed in November at the Los Angeles Auto Show and will be built at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, will roll out around July, Aldred said.

Initial dealer orders for Cascada came in 500 percent higher than GM had expected, Aldred said, in addition to customer orders in the triple-digits. He said the company has increased production for the Cascada, which is built in Poland.

Buick’s down sales year in 2015 comes after five straight years of U.S. growth. Aldred said the new vehicles launching this year will help the brand and he has “very high hopes for 2016.”

Aldred said he had “nothing to announce at this time” about if and when Buick will produce new Verano or Regal sedans. GM revealed the Verano at the 2011 Detroit auto show as a 2012 model, going on sale in late 2011. The current Regal dates to 2010 and was shown in late 2009 at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It was significantly refreshed for the 2014 model year.

IHS’ Brinley said, “Regal and Verano are getting a little old and they’re ready to be refreshed. They’ve been struggling, partially because of the appetite for SUVs, but partially I think because of their age. That’s slowing some of their sales down. A new sedan can help give it some life.

“But the Envison is the key product for this year and that’s because of the appetite for SUVs and because it’s just the right-sized product. It fills the gap between the Encore and Enclave in a really nice way.”


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