DETROIT - General Motors will shake up Buick's stodgy lineup by turning the Bengal concept into a production vehicle.
Industry sources say the company's North American Strategy Board has approved production of the front-drive, four-passenger convertible, possibly late in 2003, although 2004 appears more likely. The concept has taken several styling cues from Buicks of the 1940s and 1950s.
Another Buick concept vehicle, the LaCrosse, is moving toward a production decision by GM's top executives. The LaCrosse concept is a four-door car with a pickuplike bed.
The decision to produce the Bengal comes as Buick dealers wrestle with slumping sales and an aging car line. Until the launch of the 2002 Rendezvous sport wagon in May, the lineup consisted of four four-door sedans. Two of those sedans, the Regal and Century, share sheet metal.
Some dealers believe GM has ignored Buick as it spent billions of dollars on vehicles for other divisions.
To build enthusiasm for the brand, Buick mailed a video featuring Roger Adams, the division's marketing general manager, to dealers last week. It is the first in a series of monthly videos that will feature Adams.
He told dealers that 'despite what you may have read about Buick's future products, Rendezvous is just the first of a whole new generation of Buicks that are heading your way.'
Video pep talk
While images of the Bengal and LaCrosse appeared on the video screen, Adams said 'these new concepts are a part of Buick's future.' His comments fell short of an announcement to produce both vehicles, though industry sources say the Bengal was approved last month.
Adams added, 'You will see styling cues of LaCrosse and Bengal in all of our future products. We believe they take historic Buick cues and make them very contemporary.'
For example, a vertical grille and portholes are two styling elements that will be used in all Buicks, sources say.
Buick's future styling will exhibit 'flare and elegance,' Adams added.
The Bengal concept features a retractable tonneau cover that hides the rear seat and a third door on the driver's side.
It is not clear how much of the styling cues on the concept - such as the unusual headlamp treatment - will be incorporated into the production model, sources say.
A transverse-mounted, supercharged 3.4-liter V-6 sits behind the transmission, allowing a short front overhang and better fore-and-aft weight distribution.
The Bengal concept was first shown in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and was generally praised by the automotive press.
AutoWeek, a sister publication to Automotive News, named the Bengal the best concept of the Detroit show.
LaCrosse nears approval
Industry sources say that while the LaCrosse concept has not progressed as far as the Bengal in GM's approval process, the LaCrosse is expected to receive the nod soon.
The four-door LaCrosse concept features a tailgate that slides out, while the backlight and rear roof panel slide forward, turning the car's trunk area into a pickuplike bed.
The concept was introduced at the 2000 Detroit auto show.
A GM spokesman said the automaker does not comment on future product plans.
Buick's sales this year are down 15 percent for the January-June period, compared with a drop of 4.6 percent for the U.S. industry.
Buick's car line apparently will remain unchanged for the short term. Adams said a restyled Park Avenue will arrive in summer 2003, but nothing was mentioned about changes for the LeSabre, Regal and Century.