GM Sizing Up Whether Sexy Avista Concept Can Sell as Buick

  • Avista unveiled as two-seater about Chevrolet Camaro's size
  • Near-luxury brand also adding made-in-China SUV in revamp

Is Buick cool enough for a two-door sports car with a 400-horsepower engine? General Motors Co. may find out with the Avista concept car, shown for the first time Sunday night in Detroit.

For the second year in a row, Buick has a concept with the curvaceous styling of much-pricier brands that takes the nameplate in a new direction, albeit one the brass isn’t sure can be sold under a name still associated with 60-something buyers. Similarly, GM hasn’t yet decided to build the Avenir, named the best concept of last year’s Detroit auto show, because the brand may not be strong enough to sell a big, expensive luxury sedan.

GM will use the auto-show circuit to find out if enough people might buy such a sporty Buick. Chances are this one won’t be added to Buick’s lineup as executives say the car is more an exercise in testing new styling cues for other future models. But it has a chance.

“It’s a concept car and it has styling intent,” said Duncan Aldred, vice
president of Buick and GMC Trucks in an interview. “We’ll see about building
it. If it gets great customer reaction at the auto shows then we’ll have a job
to do to see if we should build it.”

Buick has a history of showing stunning concept cars that never find the
showroom. The brand introduced the industry’s first-ever concept car called the Y job in 1938. Harley Earl, GM’s first design chief, drove the Y job around Detroit for years but the car was never made for sale. Its prominent hood and art-deco fenders did become Buick styling cues.

“The Y job influenced an entire generation of cars and it they never built it," GM design chief Ed Welburn said. “And that’s OK. This car is influencing everything we’re doing at Buick.”

Two-Seater

The car is a short two-seater about the size of a Chevrolet Camaro. Along with the Avista, GM showed the Envision compact sport utility vehicle, which will be imported from China this year.

Both the Avista and the Envision are part of an ongoing play to make Buick hip in the U.S. and turn sales around. In the best car market ever, Buick sales fell 2.6 percent to 223,000 last year.

At the same time, there are signs of progress. Buick’s average buyer is now 59 years old, said a company spokeswoman. The average was in the mid-60s a decade ago before new models like the Encore subcompact SUV and Verano compact car started bringing in younger shoppers. Toyota’s luxury Lexus brand has an average buyer age of 57, said a Toyota spokeswoman.

The Envision has been hot in China, where Buick sold almost 150,000 of them.

Too Cool

This year, Buick will also sell a new LaCrosse large sedan that takes some styling cues from the Avenir. Buick also will add a convertible called the Cascada.

As GM keeps rolling out new models for Buick, Aldred is sticking with the brand’s “That’s a Buick?” ad campaign. The ads make a self-deprecating case that its newer cars are too cool for its geriatric reputation.

Buick is getting different buyers, said Eric Lyman, senior analyst with car-pricing website TrueCar Inc., with its cars viewed as one of the nicest mainstream brands if not luxurious. Its models sell for 14 percent more than the average mainstream new car, Lyman said. Among non-luxury brands, only Mini and Subaru command a better premium, he said.

If a U.S. turnaround takes time, Buick can rely on China, its biggest market. Last year, it sold almost a million in China for a global record of more than 1.2 million, Aldred said.

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