Buick Verano: Do Americans get it?

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DETROIT -- The new Buick Verano compact car, the smallest Buick in decades, is drawing what I consider unwarranted criticism -- not for the car itself, but for the strategy behind it.

Critics in the blogosphere are dumping on Buick for building a small car, period, and for sharing a platform with the Chevrolet Cruze. They see this as the wrong strategy for the U.S. market, and for where Buick wants to go.

In an era when every automaker shares platforms across vehicles -- none more successfully than Honda -- I don't have a problem with Buick doing likewise. It's all in the execution.

But methinks the critics failed to grasp the significance of the following two paragraphs in the middle of an Automotive News article earlier this month:

The Verano was co-developed with GM's operations in China. The Chinese version, the Excelle GT, has been on sale in that country for about six months.

“Buick China is the key customer for this car,” said Jim Federico, vehicle line executive for the Verano and GM's chief engineer for global compact, small, mini and electric vehicles.

The Verano - Buick's new compact sedan.

Photo credit: GM

In other words, this vehicle is not about Buick USA deciding to head in a new direction. In fact, it's not fundamentally about Buick USA at all.

This is about GM trying to wring some extra sales out of a vehicle whose engineering was already done.

China, not the United States, is Buick's largest customer. In 2010, Buick sold 155,389 vehicles in the United States -- with a limited lineup of three cars and one crossover. Full-year figures for China aren't in yet, but through November, Buick sold 507,180 units there.

Americans don't like to hear that we aren't the center of the universe. Too bad. In this case, we aren't.

Buick (read GM) needed this vehicle in China, and so they built it. Once they had it in the works, I assume they figured why not give it to the United States, too? It gives Buick a car in a segment that has been very good for the likes of Lexus.

Calum MacRae, an automotive specialist for PwC's Autofacts unit, told the Society of Automotive Analysts recently that China could eventually deliver a market for 6 million premium vehicles a year. You bet Buick -- and Cadillac and Lexus and BMW and every other brand that is or wants to call itself premium -- wants to be part of that.

Expect to see more made-for-China vehicles wash up on these shores. And that doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong for this market. It just means that any sales here are icing on the cake.

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com.

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