SHANGHAI -- If you were an alien from another world and your spaceship landed in Shanghai, you would immediately conclude that Buick is a planetary titan among automotive brands.
Buick is the third-leading brand in China behind Volkswagen and Hyundai through March with 5.3 percent of the market, according to data from LMC Automotive. Sales were up 23 percent over last year.
Pretty impressive for a brand that was all but given up for dead in its home U.S. market just a few years ago. In fact, Buick fans can thank the Chinese for saving their marque. If China's Empress Dowager hadn't been chauffeured around in a Buick, the brand would probably be resting comfortably with Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Saturn in the GM graveyard.
"The Buick chassis with various coachworks were utilized by royalty" during the early years of the last century, says Rudy Schlais, the former president of GM Asia Pacific who retired in 2001.
The Chinese have a great deal of respect for such traditions, says Schlais, who is now chairman of ASL Automobile Science and Technology (Shanghai) Co., a technology transfer company.
Buicks have also been popular among high-ranking government officials. For example, former Premier Chou En-Lai owned a Buick, giving the brand a helpful nod of approval from the Communist Party that continues to this day.
The Buick tri-shield insignia is ubiquitous on Shanghai's elevated expressways and surface streets. There are the usual LaCrosses, Regals and Enclaves we see here in the United States. And there are other exotic representatives of the species unheard of in the United States, such as the Excelle compact sedan, the top-selling passenger car in China in 2011.
The great GL8
But it's the Buick GL8 minivan that best captures for me why the Buick brand works so well for China. In China, a minivan is a conveyance for business executives and carries none of the soccer-mom baggage it does in the United States.
Many Chinese car owners regularly have chauffeurs to ferry them around Shanghai's streets and elevated expressways, where cars compete in an unnerving free-for-all with an array of bicycles, motor scooters, motorized bicycles, buses, taxis and pedestrians.
There's no better ride for these streets than a minivan. Sitting in the back seat of a GL8 en route to a lunch meeting with a colleague, I was impressed with the business-class comfort of the GL8's second row reclining bucket seats.
I felt safe and secure in the vault-like quiet. Chinese customers like sunroofs, and the GL8's back seat seemed a bright, cheery space as the daylight streamed in. The cargo pocket on the back of the driver's seat had ample space for reading material and water bottles. The GL8 is an office on wheels.
Design that works
Chinese customers don't generally favor aggressive exterior styling as much as Americans and Europeans do. The GL8 has a stately, upright, almost elegant look to it. It's very laid back, but the design works somehow. It's not ugly, which is more than you can say for the last Buick minivan sold in the United States, the Terraza, which went out of production in 2007.
The GL8 has what is known in China as Daqi (pronounced Dachi). Ask ten people to give their definition of the word, and you'll get ten different answers. But roughly it means harmonious or, in more contemporary terms: cool.
Buick marketers in China obviously know who their customers are. The minivan comes in a business edition and a luxury business edition. The GL8 luxury business edition's highest trim level, the XT, tops out at 388,000 Chinese yuan, or about $63,000. That's a lot of scratch for a minivan but it's a price the luxury-crazy Chinese market will bear.
Buick showed a new Riviera concept here, one of the most important unveilings of the Shanghai auto show last month.
As a guy whose first driving experience was behind the wheel my dad's 1953 two-tone Buick Roadmaster four-holer, I'm OK with Buick being a rock-star brand somewhere on the planet.
And a robust, healthy Buick in the world's largest car market can't be a bad thing for the brand's future back in its ancestral home.