Buick and Mercury hope to make a splash at the Chicago Auto Show this week. Both brands will tout plans to reinvigorate themselves with new models, nameplates, and most important, fresh styling.
Why Chicago? Despite aging car lines, the area remains loyal to both domestic brands.
But will their loyal customers be willing to pay a higher price to own the next-generation Buicks and Mercurys? That's the plan for both brands. The low-priced, deal-of-the-month models are expected to be eliminated.
And more important, will the new strategy help Buick and Mercury attract new blood? Many current buyers are retirees.
Last year the Chrysler brand attempted to shift a few notches upscale, beginning with the Pacifica. Eventually it was forced to downshift, resulting in a lower-priced Pacifica and eventually $3,000 cash on the hood.
The new direction for Buick's and Mercury's car lines can't come fast enough, say dealers. Car sales for both brands have been in a downward spiral. Last year Buick sold 259,348 units, a 30 percent slide from the previous year. Mercury's car sales were off 24.3 percent.
For General Motors, the Chicago spotlight will be squarely on Buick's 2005 LaCrosse. While Chevrolet, GMC and Pontiac each will unveil 2005 vehicles, those three brands will not hold press conferences. They don't want to take attention from Buick's coming out party, one GM insider says.
The LaCrosse will give the aging Buick lineup a boost. The last Buick to receive a major change was the 2000 LeSabre.
The LaCrosse and the Chicago event are important to Buick for two other reasons. First, it points to a new styling theme for the brand.
"This is the first step," an insider says. "The styling of future Buicks beyond LaCrosse will be edgier."
The Montego's interior features chrome and satin aluminum accents.
Second, the LaCrosse is the first car that will help reposition the brand a bit more upscale. As Buick models are replaced or redesigned, each vehicle will carry a higher price. Some of that increase will result from a higher level of standard equipment and options not offered on the current models.
Battling the imports
Gary Cowger, president of GM North America, has said that Buick will battle high-ticket imports.
"It will be American premium luxury," Cowger said. "When you think about Buick, you've got to think about going right head-to-head with Lexus - only (with) American premium luxury, distinguishing itself with very tasteful executions of interiors, getting back to more classic designs."
Both Cowger and Lutz will be in Chicago to tout the new Buick.
As the LaCrosse comes on line, two models will be dropped. The Regal will go out of production in spring, finishing its life as a 2004 model. The 2005 Century will go into production in March, but Century production will end in October.
Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. also is sending the A Team to Chicago. Among the heavy hitters are CEO Bill Ford; Jim Padilla, president of Ford North America; J Mays, the company's global design chief; and Darryl Hazel, president of Lincoln Mercury.
Ford Motor Co. has two big goals for the Chicago show.
First, make clear the economic importance of the automaker's refurbished Chicago-area assembly plant and the new supplier park. The plant will assemble the 2005 Ford Five Hundred sedan and the 2005 Freestyle wagon, along with Mercury's new flagship sedan, the 2005 Montego sedan. Production begins this summer. Bill Ford will address a Chicago Economic Club luncheon Feb. 4.
Second, and more important, Ford wants to build confidence in Mercury's future. Like Buick, the car side of the Mercury brand has been hurting. Last year Mercury sold 150,352 cars in the United States, compared with 198,614 the previous year. That was with two aging models, the Sable and Grand Marquis.
Executives will introduce the Montego, a mid-sized sedan that is expected to sticker in the $26,000 to $31,000 range and target such competitors as the Infiniti G35 and Toyota Avalon. They also will tout the new design direction for the brand and its more upscale repositioning. The Montego's styling draws on Europe's premium brands, especially Audi.
In an interview last month, Mays said Mercury's design will be about guilt-free luxury. The brand will try to tap into buyers willing to pay 20 percent to 200 percent premiums for well-designed and well-crafted goods from names such as Macintosh and Tiffany & Co., Mays said.
Designer tackles Mercury
At a Chicago reception scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 3, the evening before the Montego is unveiled, Peter Horbury plans to talk about his vision for the Lincoln and Mercury brands. Horbury is the automaker's new head of North American design. He was Volvo's design chief when Ford bought Volvo in 1999.
Insiders say most of his presentation will center on the future of the Mercury brand - specifically, how Mercury vehicles will be differentiated from other Ford Motor Co. brands, including the Mazda6. The Mazda6 platform will be shared by the Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brands.
While Buick will have sheet metal that is not shared with other brands, Mercury is expected to continue to share sheet metal with at least the Ford brand. In Chicago, the automaker will reveal interior displays that show a portion of Mercury's design strategy planned this decade, including colors, trims and materials.
The bottom line for both Buick and Mercury in Chicago is simple: Will the design strategy and the 2005 cars have substance and credibility in the eyes of customers? Can both brands command higher prices?