Buick's LaCrosse: New Signs of Life at GM

Buick is General Motors' biggest marketing challenge. Its fogey image, older buyer base, and recent history of making boring cars has made the brand a tough sell for years. But Buick's newest model—the LaCrosse sedan—is showing signs of breaking through. Automotive shopping and research Web site Edmunds.com has seen interest in the car spike since GM launched it in July and started a marketing campaign in September that compares the LaCrosse to Toyota's (TM) more expensive Lexus ES 350. If interest among online shoppers can translate into sales, GM will prove that its new models are steps toward changing the image of some of its most sullied brands. In October, 25% of buyers shopping Edmunds.com for a large sedan—such as the new Ford (F) Taurus or Lexus ES 350—would consider buying a LaCrosse, Edmunds says. A year ago, fewer than 3% of buyers looking for a comfy family car in that class considered the old LaCrosse. "We're seeing a big bounce in activity," says Edmunds.com CEO Jeremy Anwyl. "The LaCrosse is the best example of the success of GM's new-product launches." 2010 LaCrosse Sports Luxury FeaturesGM put far more into the 2010 LaCrosse. The top trim-level vehicle, labeled the CXS, features stitched leather in the dashboard. The car has buttons and gauges designed to outclass a Lexus. Its body design is more curvaceous and far more aggressive than anything Buick has done in decades. Similarly, GM has marketed the LaCrosse audaciously, comparing it to a Lexus ES 350 sedan in its ads. Buick doesn't have nearly the brand cachet of Lexus, but its marketing brags that the car offers technology such as a 40GB hard drive in the dash—useful for downloading music and running a touchscreen navigation system—and a slew of safety features typically sold on more expensive luxury cars. To date, LaCrosse sales have been low, at just about 3,000 cars a month. That's far off the 65,000-cars-per-year pace that Buick is shooting for. It's also one-tenth the volume of Ford's competing 2010 Taurus, which is also being sold at higher prices and with more creature comforts and technology than its predecessor car. More Buyers Considering BuickBut Anwyl points outs that 22% of people shopping for midsize cars also made an inquiry to a dealer about buying a LaCrosse. Also, Buick has only just hit full production of the car, so there isn't much inventory yet at dealerships, says Craig Bierley, Buick marketing director. He says there are plenty of positive signs, such as that nearly 20% of buyers come from other brands. That doesn't sound like much, but only 5% of those who bought the last-generation LaCrosse came from elsewhere, he says. Since Buick traditionally brings in few newcomers, the LaCrosse already can claim a victory of sorts. The average Buick buyer is 68 years old—which is why it's significant that a third of the new car's buyers are under 55, Bierley says. The new car also sells for an average price of $31,000—a $9,000 jump over the previous model, which needed deep discounts to gin up sales. "The car is a game-changer for Buick," says James N. Hall, principal of 2953 Analytics, a Detroit-area consulting firm. The key will be whether shoppers become buyers in the weeks ahead. "The question is, what's the conversion rate on those people who are considering the car? There is potential. If they don't consider you, they don't buy."

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