Buick: Life After Retirees

To understand Buick's startling comeback from its near death in the U.S. about 15 months ago, talk to Darrell Bostic. The 33-year-old Navy man in Corpus Christi, Tex., just bought his wife a new Lacrosse sedan after ruling out a Toyota (TM) Camry and a Nissan Maxima. Bostic and his wife are in their 30s and have young children. They are a very different demographic from the 70-year-olds who typically have embraced Buick—in declining numbers—for decades. But then the Lacrosse is not what Bostic had come to expect from Buick. The new midsize sedan, released last year by the General Motors unit, sports a sharply sculpted body quite unlike the land barges of its past. Inside, the car has such youth-friendly technology as iPod connectors and a 40-gig hard drive in the dash. "Buicks are known for being for older people," Bostic says. "The cars were big, long, and not really stylish. The look of this car really got us."

The Lacrosse's more adventurous styling is a big reason why Buick sales are up 60 percent this year. That's made it GM's fastest-growing brand in the U.S.—not bad for a car division that advisers hired by the Treasury Dept. briefly considered killing when the automaker was in bankruptcy last year.

Buick has long been a hot car brand in China, where three times more Buicks are sold than in the U.S. In America the average age of Buick owners three years ago was 72. Its recent rebound has surprised even GM marketers. The Lacrosse and Buick's Enclave SUV caught fire with consumers, even while brand managers still are formulating exactly what a revived Buick's image ought to be. For now, Roger G. McCormack, Buick's product director, just describes it as "approachable luxury." The cars offer more styling and luxury features than basic brands like Chevy and Ford (F) but for less money than true luxury brands, he says. When asked to explain the brand's progress, McCormack says simply: "It's product-driven momentum."

At least Buick knows what it doesn't want to be. For years, its stuffy image was built on big cars, so much so that in his 1977 film, Annie Hall, the character played by Woody Allen says, "There's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick." That's changing. The new Lacrosse is about the size of a Toyota Avalon, not a Cadillac of old. The just-launched Regal, plucked from GM's European unit, is a few inches shorter than a Honda Accord. Buick plans to put out a compact in about two years. And with interest in the brand so high, GM is even thinking about bringing a small SUV to the Buick line and is looking for other cars in its global portfolio.

Given increased interest in its cars, Buick wants to update its customer base. After years of courting the country-club crowd with Tiger Woods as a sponsor and its own major golf tournament, the Buick Open, Buick cut ties with both over the past two years to save money and focus on a younger demographic. "Golf can be a part of it," McCormack says. "It's just not the primary focus." In its place, Buick today advertises in culinary and travel magazines.

Buick marketers have been touting the new Regal at rock concerts called Regal Remixes, featuring local bands. It held events in Dallas, Chicago, and San Antonio this summer. "When people think of Buick, they don't know what to think," says Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive officer of auto website Edmunds.com. "These cars are succeeding because of the product, not because of the brand labeled on them." That can create confusion, but cruising away from its septuagenarian image can only help, he says. "It's better than where they were."

The bottom line: Buick, a brand long favored by the elderly, is on a roll because of hot new cars. Now owner GM is trying to expand its customer base.

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