Voulez-vous un Buick?

The good news for General Motors Corp’s long-suffering Buick division is that it has a couple of good vehicles joining its lineup. The Lucerne sedan has already hit showrooms, and it’s getting good marks for styling. Next week at the Detroit auto show, Buick will show off a very attractive crossover suv. The design has some great flourishes with deep curves in the sheet metal and an athletic stance. Think Nissan Murano except with more elegance.

The bad part is that Buick has to overcome its lousy image for those cars to break through with consumers. GM Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz told me recently that the brand’s biggest challenge is overcoming the old-man’s car stigma. Unfortunately, the brand’s current marketing strategy ain’t it. The tagline “Beyond Precision,” isn’t terrible. But the rest is way off the mark. Buick is currently trying to sell front-wheel drive “premium” cars (no one at GM will say luxury and Buick in the same sentence) bearing French-sounding names.

In the ’90s—when Cadillac was declining—it was battling Mercedes, BMW and Lexus with front-drive cars bearing French-sounding names. The Deville and Seville were the mainstays, and foreign luxury took over. In the ’70s, Lincoln also made a French connection, peddling the rebadged Ford Granada as the Versailles. So here’s Buick selling us the Lucerne and LaCrosse. The front-wheel drive part I can understand. It’s better in snow, and Cadillac has the rear-drive, sporty luxury car mission covered. Lexus and Acura sell plenty of upscale front-drive cars.

But the nomenclature comes off as old school, old Detroit thinking. It might appeal to 60-somethings who still see all things French as synonymous with elegance. But it won’t appeal to younger luxury buyers who plug iPods into their Lexus is 350’s. In other words, these names have no raison d’etre.

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