Image: 2012 Buick Verano
Paul Sancya  /  AP
The 2012 Buick Verano is unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last January. The once-dead Buick brand outsold Lexus — a vehicle brand that has long been the dominant marque in the U.S. luxury market — for the first two months of the year, data show.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/6/2011 11:12:31 AM ET 2011-04-06T15:12:31

While Butler University's long-shot bid collapsed Monday night against the University of Connecticut in the NCAA title game, basketball fans got a glimpse of another Cinderella story that may have a better chance of success.

Buick, the long-struggling General Motors brand, recently signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the NCAA, highlighted by the debut of a new “anthem” commercial during the final days of March Madness.

“Our intention is to plant the flag and inspire a reappraisal of Buick,” said Craig Bierley, the brand’s marketing chief.

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Not many Americans are aware that Buick is still around, Bierley concedes. Indeed, many analysts have long urged GM to abandon Buick, and it was expected to be one of the first brands to go when the giant carmaker plunged into government-controlled bankruptcy in 2009.

The U.S. government forced GM to cut four of its eight North American brands. In the end, Saturn, Hummer and Pontiac were closed, while Saab was sold. Buick survived, along with Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC.

Buick not only survived, it’s now starting to thrive. For the first two months of the year, the nameplate, which is being positioned as a mid-luxury brand, outsold Lexus, a vehicle brand that has long been dominant in the U.S. luxury market.

Lexus regained its lead in March and the two carmakers were, in turn, surpassed by BMW for the first quarter. Nonetheless, Buick’s sales are readily outpacing the industry’s overall recovery. The GM division sold 15,663 cars and crossovers last month, a 20.9 percent increase over the same month a year before. For the first three months of the year, sales totaled 44,739 — a 39.2 percent jump over the previous year.

Equally significant is the fact that those increases came even as Buick trimmed back on sales to rental companies — long the dumping ground for the brand’s unwanted offerings.

Of course, it helps to have a largely new line-up. Buick’s oldest model is the still-strong Enclave, introduced for the 2008 model year. The crossover was the first sign that something was changing at Buick. It not only won a number of awards, but also began attracting the sort of younger, more affluent and better educated buyers Buick hadn’t seen in decades.

Since then, a procession of new car offerings has been added to a Buick line long starved for product, including the big LaCrosse sedan, the 4-door Regal, and, later this year, the compact Verano. At the upcoming Shanghai Motor Show, meanwhile, Buick will pull the wraps off a show car likely to morph into an all-new compact crossover.

Buick’s decision to reveal the concept vehicle in China rather than at April’s New York Auto Show is significant, yet not really surprising. In fact, Ed Welburn, GM’s global design director, acknowledges Buick likely only still exists “because of China.”

In a curious twist of fate, the last emperor owned a Buick, which was later captured by the communists only to become the prize possession of Mao’s long-time lieutenant Zhou Enlai. When GM approached Chinese officials a dozen years ago with plans to put a factory in Shanghai, the company was told it had to produce Buicks rather than one of the company’s stronger brands. Since then, GM has grown to become China’s largest automaker, and Buick one of its largest foreign brands.

Now the challenge for Buick is to reproduce their success in China here in the United States, “where the perception [of the Buick brand] is out of touch with reality,” lamented Chris Perry, GM’s North American marketing director.

The NCAA campaign — which will include basketball, football, hockey and women's soccer — is central to Buick’s push to rebuild its image.

Meanwhile, the GM brand may also benefit from the impact of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that have crippled the Japanese auto industry.

Michael Jackson, CEO of the giant AutoNation retail network, warned this week that Japanese vehicles will likely be in short supply in the coming months. That could be particularly true for Lexus, as all of the Toyota luxury brand’s products are currently assembled in Japan. Toyota is only just beginning to restart assembly lines shuttered by the March 11 disaster. And the ongoing nuclear crisis, which has left the country short of power, is expected to limit automotive manufacturing for some time to come.

Still, Buick’s long-term success is anything but guaranteed, cautioned automotive analyst Dan Gorrell of AutoStrategem, a Southern California-based market research firm. The Buick brand still attracts an older, less affluent buyer — although that is beginning to shift. And Buick — like the rest of GM — still sees sales lag in key coastal markets.

The brand also has a smaller line-up than key competitors, such as Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But Bierley is optimistic that with fewer divisional mouths to feed GM can now afford to give Buick more of what it needs. The new Verano, in particular, “opens up the playing field for us,” targeting a compact luxury segment long dominated by brands imported from overseas.

As March Madness fans well know, there are plenty of long-shot teams that enter the annual tournament only to see their dreams, like Butler’s, shot down. But Buick is betting it has the staying power to go all the way. Whether it’s a Cinderella team remains to be seen, but so far, Buick is defying the odds.

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Explainer: What’s old is new again: Muscle is back

  • GM  /  Wieck

    What’s old is new again.

    The year 1969 seems to be in the air in Detroit these days, as crosstown rivals Ford and Chevrolet have revived respected high-performance versions of their popular pony cars that originally debuted the same year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

    There are other revival cars out there too, though they may have been here for a couple years already.

    Here’s a look at the old and new versions of Detroit’s well-loved muscle cars.

  • OLD: 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302

    Ford

    In the late 1960s Ford sought to shore up the Mustang against its rivals in the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-American sedan racing series, known as Trans-Am. The result was the Boss 302, a model sold in 1969 and 1970 for the sole purpose of bringing a high-powered, sharp-handling Mustang to showrooms that could win on the racetrack. Stiff springs, adjustable shocks, fatter tires and a high-revving engine delivered the goods. Ford sold 8,641 Boss 302 Mustangs during the two years it was produced, making it one of the most collectable versions of the car. Advertised horsepower was 290 hp, with the 302 cubic inch (5.0-liter in modern terminology) backed by a four-speed manual transmission.

  • NEW: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Today’s Boss 302 was built with a new mission: defeat the fearsome BMW M3 on the racetrack. Ford execs vowed to approve the project only if the resulting Mustang could lap circuits like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca faster than the Bavarian rival.

    As they had 42 years earlier, Ford engineers braced the chassis, stiffened the springs and reworked the engine to rev faster than ever. The new 302 V8 is rated at 444 hp. And again the result is a stunningly fast car considering some of the proletarian underpinnings, such as the solid rear axle.

    A test driver for Motor Trend magazine posted a Laguna Seca lap time in the car that was a slim 0.01 seconds slower than that of the exotic Audi R8 V10 by rival Road & Track magazine. The Boss is faster than the Nissan GT-R, Audi R8 4.2 (the V8 version of the car), Chevrolet Corvette Z06, BMW M3 and Porsche Cayman S.

  • OLD: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

    GM

    Ford wasn’t the only one with a track-centric pony car that debuted in 1969. Chevrolet rolled out the Camaro ZL1 the same year.

    This car was more the result of ingenuity than planned intent. Unlike the Boss, the ZL1 wasn’t designed by anyone to do anything. Instead, it was the result of a creative Illinois Chevrolet dealer who ordered 50 Camaros equipped with the company’s aluminum block 427 cubic-inch racing engine code-named ZL1.

    A few other dealers caught on to the idea and 69 of the cars were built with then engine which was officially rated at 430 horsepower, but which was tested to produce more than 500 hp.

    The $4,200 racing engine doubled the price of the Camaro, so they weren’t terribly popular with regular customers, but drag racers appreciated the car’s ability to rocket down the strip in just 11 seconds.

  • NEW: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

    GM  /  Wieck

    The new Camaro ZL1 will hit showrooms early next year, and like the new Boss 302, it packs even more power than the original, even taking the fudge factor on the old car’s rating into account.

    The 2012 Camaro ZL1 uses a supercharger to produce at least 550 hp (the official number hasn’t been finalized yet). The 6.2-liter V8 and six-speed manual transmission are similar to those seen on the Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V, and the adjustable magnetic ride shock absorber technology also carries over from the Corvette.

    The result is the most technologically advanced Camaro ever, and while the company hasn’t announced a specific performance target, it is safe to assume that Chevy’s engineering team would very much like to unseat the Boss 302’s lap times at the track.

  • OLD: 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

    GM

    In the early 1960s, American car makers had agreed not to officially back racing with “factory” teams. But the companies had customers who still wanted to race their cars, and so they wanted for those teams to win.

    Sports car racing teams wanted the fastest possible Corvette to challenge Ferrari and Carroll Sheby’s Cobras, and Chevrolet obliged by offering Regular Production Option code Z06 for the Corvette. Checking that option on the ‘Vette’s order sheet caused the factory to install a 360-hp 327 cubic-inch V8, M21 four-speed manual transmission, stiffer springs, shocks and swaybars, racing-grade drum brakes (the Corvette didn’t yet have disc brakes), aluminum wheels and a huge 36.5-gallon gas tank for endurance races.

    At $5,975, Chevy found just 199 customers for the Z06 in 1963.

  • NEW: 2011 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

    GM  /  Wieck

    By 2001, Chevrolet was ready to roll out a higher-performing version of the Corvette to defend the car’s reputation against the Dodge Viper, which had claimed the performance high ground. The company reached into its archives and dusted off the Z06 moniker. That meant the usual steps of installing a more powerful engine and stiffening the suspension to upgrade track performance, while leaving the base model with its softer springs and available automatic transmission for the boulevard cruisers.

    Today Chevrolet still offers the Corvette Z06, though its position as the pinnacle of Corvette performance has since been superseded by the supercharged Corvette ZR1. So the 2011 Z06 is the top-performing normally aspirated Corvette model, with a 427 cubic-inch V8 (7.0-liters) cranking out 505 hp, propelling the car to a top speed of 198 mph. Widespread use of lightweight carbon fiber and magnesium whittles the Z06’s mass to 3,175 lbs. a total that is unheard-of among today’s crop of porky performance models. If that’s not enough, an available performance package brings the wheels, tires, shocks and brakes from the ZR1 for maximum handling and braking.

  • OLD: 1968 Dodge Charger R/T

    Dodge

    Dodge debuted the fastback-styled intermediate-sized Charger in 1966, using a design originally planned for Chrysler’s turbine car, which did not reach production. But a refreshed design in 1968 tripled Charger sales, and along with the new sheetmetal came a new high-performance option, the R/T, which stood for Road/Track.

    The R/T’s base engine was the 375-hp 440 Magnum, but the optional 425-hp 426 Hemi with two four-barrel carburetors was the legendary pinnacle of the line, with a top speed of 156 mph, according to a test of the car by Car and Driver magazine.

    With modest changes the following year, the 1969 Charger gained later fame in garish citric paint as the street-going racecar “General Lee” on the popular weekly 1980s television drama “The Dukes of Hazard.”

  • NEW: 2011 Dodge Charger R/T

    OWEN  /  Dodge

    To the widespread dismay of enthusiasts, when the Dodge Charger returned to the company’s lineup, it was not as a swoopy coupe, but as a pug-faced four-door sedan. Dodge assuaged the ruffled feathers with an R/T model meant to confirm the Charger’s faithfulness to the original in terms of performance, if not appearance.

    For 2011 the Charger R/T is powered by a 370-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that, in a nod to modern realities, switches to a fuel-saving four-cylinder mode when all those horses aren’t needed. Another modern reality is customer disinterest in manual transmissions, so in a divergence from the original as shocking as the new car’s blocky styling, there is no manual transmission available.

    But there is all-wheel-drive, giving snow-plagued drivers their first realistic opportunity to own a normally rear-drive American muscle car as a year-round daily driver. And for those who feel today’s R/T is lacking in power compared to the original, there is always the 425-hp 6.1-liter SRT8 version.

  • OLD: 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Dodge

    The midsized Charger was a good muscle car, but was too big to be a natural competitor to Ford and Chevy’s Mustang and Camaro “pony” cars, so in 1970 Dodge launched the smaller Challenger to take them on. As with the Charger, an R/T high-performance model led the way.

    In addition to the Charger R/T’s two engines the 1970 Challenger added a third option: a 390-hp version of the 440 Magnum engine topped by three two-barrel carburetors in place of the single four-barrel on the 375-hp engine.

    The Challenger survived in this form only until 1974, but its legend was strong enough to spawn a new Challenger modeled after the original in 2008.

  • NEW: 2011 Dodge Challenger R/T

    Bill Delaney  /  Dodge

    The 2011 Challenger R/T is a stirring tribute to the original car, mimicking its styling cues. Gearheads will appreciate that Dodge stuck to the original’s attitude in making a six-speed manual transmission available to go with the 376-hp 6.2-liter Hemi V8 engine, though there is also an automatic transmission available.

    Even with the ability to rocket to 60 mph from a standstill in less than six seconds, the Hemi-powered Challenger scores 25 mpg on the EPA’s highway fuel economy test thanks to cylinder deactivation technology that lets it cruise on four cylinders.

    But if passing competitors is more important than passing gas pumps, a new top-of-the-line Challenger SRT8 392 Hemi edition offers a stunning 470 hp that brings 60 mph on the speedometer in less than five seconds.

Vote: Vote: Would you consider a Buick as your next car?

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