Buick went in a new direction — East — with the design of its newest concept vehicle, the sporty Buick Riviera.
The coupe is the first show car to be designed jointly by teams in Shanghai and North America, GM's vice president of design, Ed Welburn, said Thursday. Welburn unveiled the Riviera ahead of the North American International Auto Show, which starts media preview days on Sunday.
"The opportunities are great for the Buick brand," Welburn said. "There is room for design that has got more flair and is sportier."
The front-wheel-drive coupe with gull-wing doors and a swooping glass roof revives the Riviera name after an eight-year hiatus. General Motors Corp. sold more than 1.1 million Rivieras between 1963 and 1999.
Since then, Buick has become GM's most popular brand in China, with domestic sales of 332,115 vehicles in 2007, up 9 percent from the year before. Welburn said Buick is especially popular with Chinese executives, which is one of the reasons for the Riviera's luxurious interiors.
The Chinese design team was primarily responsible for the distinctive lighting on the vehicle, according to Dave Lyon, GM's executive director of North American interior design. The Buick logo, hood strip, headlights and side mirrors have a bluish backlight that can switch on at night. Lyon said it was a "theatrical" touch that reflects the pulse of Shanghai.
Lyon said the Chinese team also developed the elongated headlights that flow into the traditional Buick "portholes," the vents that denote the type of engine in Buick vehicles. The design was based on an ancient Chinese symbol for prosperity.
Inside, the Riviera was designed to evoke a luxurious day spa, with leather bucket seats, plush carpet and ambient blue lighting, Lyon said. The dash moves in a continuous line across the sides and front of the vehicle and controls are kept to a minimum.
"This really is a beautiful, quiet, comfortable car," Lyon said.
David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the vehicle shows GM is serious about being a global company.
"They've become a much more globally integrated company over the last several years," he said. "This is not just talk. That's the way they're running the business."
Cole also said the Riviera shows that designers are being given more freedom at GM.
"It's a whole different mood than a couple of years ago," he said.
While GM has no immediate plans to produce the Riviera, Welburn said it would be at home in China or North America. Consumers everywhere are becoming more aware of global design and are increasingly wanting many of the same features, he said.
"It's easier to do a vehicle for all regions today than in the past," he said.
Even if the Riviera doesn't make it into production, Welburn said it's already influencing Buick design. A vehicle due out later this year contains many design cues from the Riviera, he said.
Buick enjoyed a bit of a resurgence this year with the Enclave crossover, a hit for the brand that sold nearly 30,000 units in the U.S. in its first six months on the market. In September, GM signed a deal that will allow it to export the Enclave to China starting this year.
But Buick sales were still down 23 percent overall as the brand's LaCrosse and Lucerne sedans have aged.
Lyon said that will change as GM invests more in Buick, as it has done with its resurgent Cadillac brand. Lyon said the Enclave is helping attract new, younger customers to the brand without alienating older ones.
"In the next couple of years you'll see the real traction for Buick," he said.
The Detroit Auto Show opens to the public Jan. 19.