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How China, Not Your Grandfather, May Have Saved Buick’s Future

Image: US-NEW YORK-AUTO SHOW

The 2017 Buick Encore is unveiled in New York on March 22, 2016, ahead of the 2016 New York International Auto Show. JEWEL SAMAD / AFP - Getty Images

For a brand nearly abandoned seven years ago, Buick has delivered quite an encore. Make that Encore, the maker's most popular model, and part of a growing line-up of products that has helped the long-struggling Buick reverse course and achieve record global sales.

Long derided for stodgy, outdated styling, Buick has been receiving kudos for the look of its new production models, as well as two recent, award-winning concept vehicles. But the Encore reveals how it has driven its turnaround by leading, rather than following, as competitors race to take advantage of one of the industry's biggest shifts in decades. By the end of 2017, officials predict, nearly three of four Buick vehicles sold in the U.S. will be crossover-utility vehicles.

Ironically, it's not the U.S. that's driving Buick's revival. Credit goes to China, though industry analysts suggest that demanding Asian consumers have actually helped the brand develop new products more in tune with American buyers, as well.

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"Buick wouldn't have survived if it wasn't for China," explained Ed Welburn, GM's local product design chief. But why is a somewhat convoluted story.

A century ago, Buick was one of America's most prestigious brands, on a par with Cadillac, and had a strong following abroad, as well. It was the favorite of Henry Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, in fact, and his car was passed down among subsequent Chinese leaders, surviving the Second World War to land in the hands of Mao Zedong's faithful lieutenant, Zhou Enlai.

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In the late 1990s, when General Motors wanted to become one of the first Western automakers to set up a plant in China, government officials told then-CEO Jack Smith they wanted GM's "best brand," he once recalled — not Cadillac, not Chevrolet, but Buick. Today, GM is the second-largest automaker in China and Buick is its top brand.

In fact, Chinese motorists purchased about 1 million of the roughly 1.2 million Buicks sold worldwide in 2015, an all-time record on both counts.

To stay ahead in that increasingly competitive market, Buick has had to up its styling game and boost both the quality and features of its products. Since many of those models are sold in the U.S., American motorists have benefitted, as well.

For decades, "If you thought about Buick, you thought about a big, boaty sedan or wagon with plush velour seats," said Joe Phillippi, senior automotive analyst with AutoTrends, Inc. But the brand is rapidly revising what he calls its "hoary" reputation.

Buick showed off its new design direction at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show with the widely hailed Avenir, a full-size luxury sedan concept. It scored an equal success at this year's show with the even more sporty Avista, a concept coupe.

Unfortunately, for their legions of fans, neither is likely to make it into production, conceded GM global product development chief Mark Reuss, because the U.S. market — and, increasingly, the Chinese market, as well — has been shifting from passenger cars to crossover-utility vehicles like the Encore and the Enclave.

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Those two models accounted for about 60 percent of total Buick demand last year, said Duncan Aldred, Buick's director of U.S. sales, service and marketing. He added that, "I believe utility vehicles will represent 70 percent or more of our sales in the U.S." once a third crossover is added.

That compact model, the Envision, due mid-year, will have the added distinction of being the first product from a major automaker imported from China — where it is already outselling Buick's original forecast by a wide margin.

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In 2009, GM came close to dropping the Buick brand as a condition of its government-led bankruptcy and bailout. Instead, the maker abandoned Hummer, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn, fearing that if Buick was abandoned in the U.S. it would tarnish its image in China.

American sales have been on the upswing since then, but lag far behind Buick's peak here. The challenge is convincing U.S. motorists to put it back on their shopping list.

Recent marketing efforts — lifting a theme from the old "Your father's Oldsmobile" ad campaign — have made fun of Buick's stodgy image. Demand slipped 11 percent year-over-year in March, but sales were still up for the first quarter.

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If anything, the brand will step up the "Is that a Buick" campaign as it rolls out an assortment of new and updated models, including the 2017 Encore, a redesign of the big Enclave, the new Envision, the new Cascada convertible and other offerings.

The ad campaign is also spotlighting a turnaround in Buick's quality and reliability, the brand surging to the top tier, according to recent studies by J.D. Power and Associates.

"Even if you exclude China, the brand is doing quite well here," said analyst Phillippi. And if it can connect with new buyers looking for the latest in utility vehicles, he added, Buick could really build momentum in the U.S. for the first time in decades.