When Lin Hui and his wife went shopping in Shanghai for their first car, they splurged, spending $17,000 on their dream machine.
It was a Buick.
“It’s safe, it’s comfortable, and the look is beautiful,” Lin said.
Buick’s sizzling sales have driven General Motors — even as it closes plants and lays off workers at home — to the top of the pack in China, the world’s fastest-growing automobile market. GM sold 665,000 cars and trucks in China last year. For now, only 1 in 100 Chinese own a car, compared to 9 in 10 in the United States. But the Chinese expect 130 million vehicles to be sold by 2020.
In fact, GM now sells more cars overseas than it does at home.
“They like the image of what America is,” said Michael Dunne, president of Automotive Resources Asia, a marketing stagy firm based in Thailand. “America is big, broad and powerful.”
Hitting China’s sweet spot
Nearly 1 in 7 cars sold here is made by GM, just seven years after it opened its first dealership. The company recently added a second plant in Shanghai and plans to open 150 new Chevrolet dealerships, expanding its Chinese workforce to 20,000.
GM can afford to expand because, unlike in the United, it has no health care costs, and pensions for its Chinese workers are minimal.
GM went right to the top in targeting the consumer it wanted to reach: the rich. Its goal was to establish Buick as the dream car for every Chinese driver.
Take the Buick minivan. It was designed for suburban moms in the United States, but in China, it is a status symbol.
“They want a car that says, ‘I’ve arrived,’” said Troy Clarke, president of GM Asia -Pacific.
Likewise, the GL-8 minivan has been redesigned for China’s business elite, with an oversized Buick logo, seat-back television screens and angled headlights to imitate the eyes of a mythical Chinese bird.
“Fine detail, fit finishes, a little bit of chrome or a little bit of jewelry in just the right spot where Chinese consumer might look for it,” Clarke said.
The Buick has always had a bit of allure here. The last emperor was the proud owner of two Buicks, but now, the Buick is making a new generation of Chinese feel at least like kings of the road.