So how can Buick establish itself as an "American premium luxury" brand? Observers inside and outside GM say Buick must jump several hurdles: Establish a distinctive design theme
Buick's vague identity stems from GM's badge-engineering era. The resemblance between mid-1980s Buicks and other GM cars tarnished Buick's image of exclusivity.
David Cole, president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., says Buick will develop its next generation of vehicles from components shared with other GM vehicles. That makes it all the more important to give Buick distinctive design.
"I think (Vice Chairman Robert) Lutz is really stirring the pot there," Cole says. "My guess is that we'll see a Buick statement emerge at the next Detroit auto show. I think they're ready to commit to Buick in terms of a thematic approach that will go across their line."
Cole adds that sharp design could be a strong weapon against Lexus, which has been criticized for forgettable styling on some of its cars. Crank up the horsepower
After it was incorporated on May 19, 1903, Buick built a reputation for horsepower. Buick spokesman Lawrence Gustin says Buick's "valve in head" engine - an overhead valve engine - was highly efficient, producing more horsepower than other engines its size. Buick distinguished itself by winning races, hill-climbing contests and the like in the first decades of the auto industry.
Today, GM divisions don't have dedicated engineering or powertrain operations. But Gordon Wangers, managing partner of Automotive Marketing Consultants in San Diego, says power still should be part of Buick's personality. "It's time for Buick to graduate beyond the 3800 V-6," he says. "That would be a key point. They need a V-8." Emphasize comfort
Conrad Darby, co-chairman of the Buick dealer council, says Buick doesn't need to deliver tire-squealing acceleration or sports-car handling. Buick buyers prefer the "boulevard ride" of past years, he says, which means soft handling, an extremely quiet interior and comfortable seating.
Even the vehicles that appeal to midlife buyers, such as the Rainier mid-sized SUV that goes on sale this fall, need elegant interiors, says Darby, owner of Darby Buick in Sarasota, Fla.
Similarly, Buick's engine power must be refined, he says, pointing to the Electra 225 of the late 1950s and early 1960s as a template.
"It wasn't designed to be a stunning-looking car," Darby says. "It was designed to carry six people from Florida to Indiana in comfort."
Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific, says the division was at its peak in the mid-1950s when it offered "big, powerful, smooth, reliable cars." Woo boomers but keep seniors
Buick desperately needs to connect with a younger generation of consumers. Hall says GM initially thought baby boomers would migrate to a "mature" brand as they aged, but the group's youthful self-image kept them away.
"They didn't realize that to the boomers, 'mature' is a dirty word," Hall says.
GM has begun to win younger - that is, middle-aged - buyers with the Rendezvous crossover and has high hopes for the Rainier. Cole says Buick must pursue new buyers while retaining older customers.
The model, he says, is Cadillac's "two-track marketing," aiming the CTS sedan and Escalade SUV at younger buyers while attracting older ones with such cars as the DeVille and Seville. Stick to a marketing theme
In the past few years, Buick has auditioned several advertising themes, including the short-lived "It's all good."
Hall says it must resist the urge to jigger its plan in a few years if success doesn't come quickly.
"If they get the product right, they can do it," Hall says. "But most importantly, they have to be consistent so they don't hop around the market like a bee you've caught in a jar."